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Saturday, August 16, 2003

The à la Menthe
Tanger, Morocco

Well, it can still get hot here, especially when you are away from the sea breeze. We stayed at the Hotel Excelsior last night, in a huge room with 4 beds. It was the only remaining room, so rather than trek around with our backpacks and our backs full of sweat, we decided to take it. Prices are much more affordable in Morocco that everything seems quite cheap in comparison to Spain. Most of the rooms here do not include a bathroom or shower. Those are either communal, or you have to pay an additional fee to use. We haven't actually seen one yet, but there are public bath houses scattered around the city.

Yesterday evening, we wandered through the medina (walled city) and the souk (market). The streets of the medina are very narrow, just wide enough for a bicycle or three people to walk by. Definitely built a long time ago. In fact, a lot of the ground is no longer level, with the earth having shifted over the years. Still, it was very interesting walking through them, watching kids play marbles, and men talking outside their homes. One thing you will notice here is that there appears to be far more men than women. In fact, you almost only see men at the coffee shops, with the occasional foreign women among them. The wares for sale are quite neat; traditional clothing of all colours and with embroidery, traditional embroidered slippers, leather bags and sandals, ceramics, wooden boxes, drums, lanterns, and much more. It was very difficult to resist stopping by and thinking that something would look great in our living room, or this outfit would be great for so and so's baby. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise that since we won't be going home quite yet that we're not able to buy much.

We enjoyed dinner in the middle of the medina. The soup du jour was wonderful, as well as the vegetable couscous that I ordered. Yummy! Winston also had a salad. We felt much healthier after eating all the heavy food in Spain. Walking through the marketplace earlier, we could not resist getting some bananas and fried churros. Maybe today we will pick up more fruits as there are plenty for sale. With a time change of 2 hours (Morocco is 2 hours behind Spain), the sun set shortly after 7pm instead of 9 as we had gotten accustomed to. In Spain, night life did not begin till 9pm, and we had gotten used to staying up late.

This morning, we checked out of the hotel and checked into the Youth Hostel. We only had enough time to drop off our bags as the hostel is closed from 10-noon for cleaning. Walking towards the beach, we stopped by a coffee shop facing the beach, and enjoyed traditional moroccan mint tea. Very delicious indeed. Served in a metal teapot, the tea is served very hot, with lots of sugar and loads of fresh mint tea. You get a total of three cups out of every pot. It was a bit on the sweet side, but very delicious indeed. We also ordered a pancake type pastry which went really well with the tea. We really enjoyed watching people walking by, old and young, while we were sipping our tea in the shade with the sea breeze blowing by. Ahhhhh...

The beach at Tanger is huge! There is probably about 80m of sand between the edge of the beach and the water front. There were quite a few people out, but it was no where as busy or crowded as the beach in Malaga. The Mediterranean here is a beautiful shades of deep blue, not much green at all. The sky is also a very nice colour blue, so with the golden sand in between, the picture is definitely quite amazing. There is some kind of carnival or fair going on, with rides for kids and a talent contest.

We're hiding out from the midday sun again at the Internet Cafe. Winston is uploading our website right next to me, so hopefully you will get to enjoy our pictures from Portugal and Spain soon. We are planning to catch a train to Rabat tomorrow and may be there for a few days depending on how long it will take us to process our visa for India.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Adios Spain
Tanger, Morocco

We found out about the Feria de Malaga when we arrived there. Supposedly the biggest summer fair in Andalucia, we thought it would be neat to see what it's all about. Unfortunately after being told by seven or so hotels that everything is booked up till the 24th (the end of the fair), we figured it was time to set out. Thanks to Sue's suggestion, we headed off to Ronda on August 14th. We had planned to take the 2pm train there, but when we got to the station, we found out that it was sold out! The next one wasn't till 7pm, so we headed over to the bus station. Luckily, we managed to get one of the last seats left on the 2pm bus. By now it was 1:50pm, so it was quite a last minute decision.

Juan Carlos had warned us that there were two bus routes to Ronda. One goes along the coast, stopping at many towns and take about 3.5 hours. The other goes inland, and gets there in about 2 hours. We had no idea what bus we boarded since we bought our tickets so quickly (from a woman who didn't speak any English, no less) so we were very lucky to find out that we were indeed on the shorter route. Whew. Unfortunately for us though, the internal route goes along the high plains of the Andalucia, so we were hugging clifts most of the time. Winston and I both got a bit car sick, though my stomach strenghtened up after a while so I could enjoy the pretty scenery.

When we were in Malaga, we enjoyed watching the city get set up for the big fair. There were streamers and lanterns of purple, green and white all throughout the old town. We also saw workmen hang new flower pots on the street lamp posts, and wire cables for additional decorations. There were also temporary restaurants and bars being set up in the middle of the different plazas. We found out afterwards (on the bus to Ronda), that this fair is pretty much all about 24hr dancing and drinking. So maybe it wasn't so bad after all that we didn't get any accommodations. Besides, the only rooms available by then were in the upwards of 300 Euros. Yikes!

Malaga is very pretty, and the weather actually cooled down the day before we left. Our second day there, we walked through the Alcantara, which is quite old with lots of Moorish decorations still seen on the building. We had churros for breakfast. That was fun. We thoroughly enjoyed the zumo de naranja in the mornings, and tried out their espresso. Wow.. very strong!! Juan Carlos had suggested a restaurant along the beach for us to enjoy fried fish, so before Jon left, that's what we did. We took a taxi out there, and walked along the beach enjoying the view of families hanging out, kids playing, and watching the restaurants get ready for dinner. One thing to note, people don't seem to start eating till 9:30pm out here. The tables were barely set up by then. We had a nice dinner, outside on the beach promenade, under the stars. The food was excellent, of course, we noticed that other people had much more interesting food than us. Next time we have to go eat later so we can point to what other people were eating and order the same thing.

Our hotel, Hotel Venecia, was very centrally located and comfortable. Winston and I enjoyed a Malaga desayuno of cafe (again very strong), zumo (awesome freshly squeezed orange juice) and piscato (sandwich - I had queso, and Winston's was chorizo) for 3Euro each. Not bad. We've really enjoyed our stay in Spain, and appreciate all that we have seen and learnt. Now we have to try and get spanish out of our head as we try now to learn some Moroccon Arabic, and Winston's brushing up on his French. So far no disasters yet! We're planning to spend 2 nights here in Tangier, before taking a train down to Rabat.

As-salam alaykum, Morocco!
Tangier, Morocco

Well, we decided where to go to next, with a little help from Sue, Juan, and Ulli (thanks again!). We stayed in Ronda last night at Hotel Morales, a nice clean place with a friendly owner. Ronda claims to be one of Spain's oldest towns and the home of bullfighting. It is situated on both sides of a huge gorge, which was really neat, with the old town on one side, and the new town on the other. We will hopefully get some pictures up online soon; this cafe seems to be capable of a laptop connection, which we'll try tomorrow. We had our last Spanish meal of tapas (I think I've had enough jamon, I must admit) and this morning took the train through the very scenic Spanish countryside from Ronda to Algeciras.

There were several options for us once we got to Algeciras, but since we need to go to Rabat to get our Indian visas, we decided to hop on a fast ferry to Tangiers. We read about all the hassle you deal with at the port in Tangiers, but when we got off, it was hardly the mob scene we expected... we were approached by just two guys, just shook our heads no, and that was it. There were a few "koniciwa's" thrown our way from people on the street, but we get that everywhere we go. There was one kind of annoying guy who tagged around while we were looking for a hotel, but he left eventually once he realized we weren't going to give him any money.

We're going to stay here two nights, there's supposed to be a neat medina here and lots to see. If it weren't for our visas, I think we'd be heading south through Chefchaouen (which we heard is really nice), and then going to Fez. In our case, we'll visit Fez as one of our last stops in Morocco, depending on whether we go to coast or up into the High Atlas mountains. We have decided to skip Casablanca; from what we hear, it is a large city, and might not have the charm of some of the older Imperial cities.

For now, I need to stop saying "gracias" to people here, and switch to either "merci" or "shukran". Just as soon as we start getting the hang of one country's language, we're on to the next one!

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Where to Next??
Malaga, Spain

It's quite a weird feeling... Jon just left us last night to return home, and for the first time on our trip, we're alone, just the two of us. Travelling with Jon was great fun, the 15 days in Spain and Portugal seemed like a month, we did so much stuff. But once again, we're got this odd feeling of having our travelmates return home while we figure out where we want to go next.

Sue suggested that we take the train to Ronda, so I think that's what we're going to do. Wende put us in touch with her friend Juan Carlos, who, together with his friend Ulli, gave us all kinds of recommendations for Spain and Morocco. Thank you Juan and Ulli; the pescados fritas at "El Cabra" last night were fantastic!! Thanks Wende, for hooking us up too.

I think we're going to be leaving Europe soon, and will be crossing over the Mediterranean to visit Africa again. We're thinking of exploring Morocco for a few weeks... what direction we're going to go first we're not sure, but perhaps we'll decide that tomorrow. We'll have to spend some time in Rabat to hopefully take care of our Indian visas. After that, who knows... we definitely want to spend a fair bit of time in Fez, perhaps down the coast to Essaouira, perhaps into the High Atlas mountains, depending on the temperatures.

We haven't been able to find an Internet Cafe in either Sevilla or Malaga that has allowed us to connect with our laptop. We're got pages ready to upload from Spain and Portugal, but I'm afraid that we'll have to keep looking for a cafe with a whole lot less security than the ones we've been visiting.

We heard that there was some kind of explosion in Sevilla yesterday, not really sure what that was about, but hopefully it wasn't anything serious.

Well, it's time to leave Western Europe and strike out for something a bit different, and perhaps more challenging, travel/convenience-wise. See you soon in Africa!

A Malaga Moment
Malaga, Spain

It is morning in Malaga on the southern coast of Spain, and we are strolling through a pedestrian mall in the morning watching the area bustling with vendors and tourists and locals going about their business. We're feeling fairly comfortable in the warm temperature on the coast, having come from the heat of Seville the day before.

We happen to walk into the Plaza de la Constitucion, and pull up a few chairs at cafe on the side of the plaza. We order cafe solo, some freshly squeezed zuma natural, and some pastries. The food takes a little while to arrive, but we don't mind because we're in no rush at all.

Nearby, workers are stringing wires and decorations for the coming Feria de Malaga, the huge annual festival that starts this Saturday. The square is a beehive of activity; shoppers walk by clutching their full bags, couples stroll by hand in hand, and old men stand on the corner watching life go by. A bell tolls twice from the nearby cathedral which is the only mark of the passage of time that we notice.

It's easy to see why thousands of people flock here to enjoy their holidays each year. Our little taste of Southern Spain has been enough to convince us that despite the warm temperatures, the pace of life can actually slow down enough for us to stop and smell the coffee. Gracias, Malaga!

Monday, August 11, 2003

Flamenco and Toros en Sevilla
Sevilla, Spain

Just to add to Jen's comments, two of the highlights that we experienced was the flamenco performance we saw on Saturday, and the bullfight that we saw last night.

The flamenco performance was at a cultural center, recommended by the fellow at the tourist information booth. There were many advertised flamenco performances all over the city, but I doubt that novices like us would be able to tell the difference between expert or not-so-expert flamenco. In any case, what we did see was pretty incredible. There were three performers, a singer, guitarist, and of course, the dancer. The singer was great, but what really fascinated me was the guitarist... I remarked to Jon that he could have showed the Gypsy Kings a thing or two (or, well he could at least play as well as them). I've heard Spanish guitar before, but never had the opportunity to see it played up close like that. Phenomenal technique, absolutely incredible technical prowess with the instrument.

The only way I can describe the flamenco dancer is this: goosebumps. I think this might have been the first time that I've ever seen anything that actually gave me goosebumps (especially in this hot weather). She exhibited so much confidence, power, and passion in her movements and her expressions. Unfortunately, the pictures didn't turn out nearly as well as they would have liked, but they'll serve to remind us of the amazing flamenco experience we had.

As for the bullfight, well, I did say it was a highlight, but I have very mixed emotions about it; I think we all did. It was fascinating and revolting at the same time. It was an intense experience, an incredibly interesting glimpse of a cultural activity that is so different from anything else that we're seen. However, knowing that the bull is fought and killed in the ring and seeing it with your own eyes are two different things altogether. It really evoked all kinds of different emotions: interest in the activity itself, fascination with the crowd's reaction, revulsion at the treatment of the bull, pity for the bull's ultimate demise, and even admiration for the bravery (or foolishness, however you want to call it) of the young matadors who put themselves in the ring.

I think it is possible to be both uneasy about a particular activity and respectful of its existance and importance at the same time. I'll eventually be putting together a separate web page with pictures and explanation of the bullfight for those who might be interested. Be warned though, it will be pretty graphic.

Like Jen, I don't think I'd go to another bullfight, but at the same time, I'm very glad that we had the opportunity to see one. It was undoubtedly a memorable experience.

Still in Sevilla
Seville, Spain

We attempted to watch the Terminator III yesterday, but found out that the movies here have all been dubbed-over with Spanish. Hm, not very useful especially when there are no subtitles either. Seville was the host of the 1992 Worlds Fair, as well as one from 1929 (I think). We went to the site of the more recent Worlds Fair and was surprised to see that most of it is left alone. There were many abandoned structures, although a part of the grounds has been turned into an amusement park - Isla Magica.

Seville is a very walkable city, with many bridges crossing the Rio Guadalquivir (our hotel - Hotel Monte Carmelo) is in the area of Triana, which is across the river from the historic district). We've walked across five of these bridges now. I forgot to mention the other day when I talked about the street cleaners. There are many horse drawn carriages in town, so of course, the horses make a mess on the road as they aren´t toilet trained. No wonder they needed to hose down the streets at night. With this heat, the smell of horse droppings will only be magnified. There are also a lot of dog droppings on the street/sidewalks. I guess they don't have a pooper scooper law here.

Last night we went to our first bull fight ever. I have to admit that I knew very little about bull fighting. I had always just assumed that it was a show where the matador waves around his cape and the bull charges at it. To my horror, I found out that they actually killed the bull right there! Gasp. Although, once I got past the initial disgust, I was able to view the event as a sport. I doubt I would ever pay to see it again though. Last night there were 3 young matadors, aged between 19 and 23. It appears that the professionals fight during the spring, and autumn. These guys were very impressive though, and definitely courageous. Two of them were head-butted by the bulls and one had to be carried off for first aid. Yikes. The whole show lasted about 2.5 hours.

We have been very impressed with Seville´s architecture. Today we walked by the Plaza de España - a beautiful large building with hardwood ceilings and carved staircases, fountains, painted tiles, arches, etc. Many of the buildings have a unique blend of Euro-muslim designs, with the use of wood carvings shaped in curves, and colourful tiles. Very colourful and beautiful indeed.

We had dim sum for lunch at a chinese restaurant called Hang Zhou (I had a craving for chinese food). There were several other tables of Chinese people there, but alas, the food was only so-so. I think we have all been spoilt with great food in Vancouver. Tonight, we´re going to have another round of tapas. We´ll be saying goodbye to Seville tomorrow morning as we catch a bus to Malaga, which is 2.5 hours away from here, down by the coast of the Mediterranean. Apparently the temperature there is around 32C, so we are looking forward to a cool weather. Funny to think of 32C as cool, but after being in 39C-45C (100F and up), I´m sure 32 will be very nice indeed. Hm, we might even get to visit the beach!

"Snapshorts" of Portugal
Sevilla, Spain (written originally on bus from Lisbon to Sevilla)

We had rented a tiny Peugeot 206 from Avis in Lisbon for our trip up to Coimbra and Porto. I don't know how many car rentals we'll be doing on this trip, but with Jon with us, splitting it three ways didn't seem too bad. In the end, we were ultimately very greatful for the car, seeing as it gave us much more flexibility to explore various parts of the city. In addition, the two youth hostels were quite a ways out of the center of town where most of the action was, so having a car was really convenient for that too.

Our average speed on the freeway was about 140km/hr. They drive fast on that motorway. However, that was nothing compared to the BMW's and Mercedes cars that passed us on a regular basis, going at least 180 to 200 km/hr. Totally insane.

Driving was actually pretty easy (they're on the right side of the road as well), except for the construction zones, where instead of having advanced warning that they are doing some work on the road, they put up cones only around their work area, so if you're in the wrong lane, you have to go from 140 to almost a complete stop to prevent yourself from plowing into the cones and then the workers. Maybe they don't have enough cones.

Jon's Hash-Smuggling Friend
In the Posada de Juventude (youth hostel) in Porto, Jon befriended a young man from Spain who chatted with us at breakfast. He had some very strong feelings about America, not of the complimentary variety. Actually, he entertained us with a story about how he was caught at US Customs with some hash in his pocket that he apparently forgot was there because he hadn't used that jacket in a long time. They apparently gave him a pretty hard time. Foolish customs officials for not realizing that people tend to forget these things from time to time. Tsk.

He was a very colourful individual however, and gave Jon a list of things to do and places to visit in Spain. Hopefully we'll continue to meet more interesting people on our travels!

Forest Fires
With the record-breaking temperatures that most of Europe is experiencing this summer, many countries, especially Portugal have been hard hit by very serious forest fires, similar to what we hear is happening in B.C. these days. In fact, the highway we were on went right beside two forest fires, which was a bit of a surreal experience; the flames were very clearly visible from the road. We'll have a picture or two to post of that as well.

There will be more on this posted when we get our Portugal page posted eventually, but fado is a type of traditional Portuguese music that we got the opportunity to listen to when we stumbled upon a public performance in Coimbra. Melodious and melancholy, fado was characterized to us as the equivalent of "Portuguese Blues." It was really quite an incredible experience.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Flamenco and Sauna
Seville, Spain

OK, I take back what I said yesterday about the weather. It is HOT here, especially between 1pm and 6pm. With the humidity, it really does feel like we´re walking through a sauna everytime we step outside of an air-conditioned building. That said, it makes so much sense for people to take their siesta during the afternoon break. We were walking around yesterday at 4:30pm, and commented that walking around at 4:30pm is exactly the same as walking around at 4:30am (when we first arrived) in that NOTHING is open and no one is around. Pretty funny, actually.

We had a tour of the bull fighting museum yesterday, with an English-speaking guide. Did you know that originally they used to ride horses and poke a spear through a human head made of paper mache? Apparently in the 17th century, they decided to make the game more challenging, and hence began the bull fights. This was a sport just for the nobles, I guess like the English with their polo games and hunting. It was pretty weird to see an surgical clinic right in the middle of the stadium - I guess it´s better to have it there in case anyone gets injured during the fight. It had the full set of equipment fitted for any emergencies.

After walking around and realizing that it was too hot, we went to take refuge in our cool room, to emerge again at 8pm. Dinner was a light meal of tapas (very delicious indeed). I have fallen in love with the gazpacho here. Yummy! Perfect for warm nights. It is a nice blend of tomatoes, cucumber, onions and other spices. For those of you who don´t know, it´s a soup.

We watched a great performance of traditional flamenco. Wow. The fellow playing guitar was really quick with his hands. He picked faster than anyone we´ve ever seen. The dancer was also excellent, and the singer added a great background voice for the music. We had a blast, and it was one of the most memorable thing we´ve done so far. Time´s running out so I gotta go now.


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