Spain, Morocco, Portugal, FM version

Trip Start Oct 20, 2003
Trip End Dec 22, 2004

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Friday, June 11, 2004

We took a guided tour on a bus to Spain, Morocco, and Portugal on June 11-27. We were not sure we'd like the guided tour with a lot of people we didn't know, but were lucky. Our guide, Lydia is a very well educated, considerate woman who could talk intelligently about the history or culture of the cities we visited and would do most anything to help us enjoy the trip more or be more comfortable.

We flew to Madrid via Milan on Alitalia and arrived late in the evening June 11. We spent the next day on a bus and walking tour of the city. We didn't realize then but the beautiful pots of purple petunias on every light post were put up earlier for the May wedding of Crown Prince Felipe to a commoner who has been married before. Marty thought she must have had an annulment to marry this time, and the people of Spain have mixed feelings about this bride, but the prince is very popular.

The city is beautiful in the bright June sunlight. There are many flowers in the downtown gardens. There have been beautiful roses, but it's already way too hot for them. People seem to dress in looser clothes in the heat and leave shirttails out to avoid being tightly bound up in the heat. There is also a hint in many women's clothes of the full skirts of Spanish dancers. Some of the shopping streets have huge sun shades mounted overhead-- sheets of colored cloth tied to the buildings on both sides and blocking some of the intense sunlight out.

In a beautiful downtown park there is a monument to Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Later in the week we will pass by the area where the author saw the windmills that Don Quixote sees as monsters to be subdued. They were actually used for grinding wheat, but are now only tourist attractions. On the other hand, 35% of Spain's electricity is wind generated. (If that were true in the US, we might not have any more energy crises!)

The tour begins Sunday morning as we drive to Toledo. Toledo was originally the capital of Spain and had three sections: the Muslim part on one side, the Christian section in the middle, and the Jewish section on the other side. At a later time, all non-Christians were expelled from the city. Since the bus cannot enter the old city, we walk up a gradual incline to see the cathedral from the outside; it is Sunday morning, so we can't interrupt the service. Also, this parish is about to celebrate Corpus Christi with a procession from the church through the city. Men are preceding the procession with bags of rosemary they drop on the ground, so that as the participants walk along, the herb seeds will be crushed to create a sweet aroma along the celebratory route. A long, white banner is arranged overhead to cover the entire route of the parade.

At this time of year, a few trees and flowers are blooming in profusion. One is oleander; we see thousands of huge bushes on this trip covered with pink, white, or red flowers. Another is the Jacaranda tree, which has blue flowers and is particularly beautiful to us, because we had never seen one before. We also see blooming mimosa and gorse. Magnolias are in bloom. We also see small fields of sweet corn, which we didn't expect in Europe and northern Africa; the corn is tasseled and close to being ready to pick. There were also large asparagus farms.

The next stop is Granada (the word means Pomegranate). The highlight of Granada is the Alhambra, the medieval palace built by the Muslims after they conquered Spain and then abandoned when Spain's Christian King Charles V expels the Muslims and builds a few additions to the beautiful Moorish castle in a European style with a very formal garden. The combination of the two styles reminds you that Spain and Portugal have a far different history than that of the rest of Europe because of the interaction of Christian and Muslim cultures in these two countries and northern Africa.

Our next stop is a Mediterranean coastal town of Mijas; it is a white village, a village in which all houses have white outside walls, which is very attractive to tourists, so residents can't change the color and are required to whitewash their homes periodically. We sit outside by the sea and eat mostly fish and watch the people go by. The menu was prearranged by the tour; we had salad, roasted red peppers, baby clams, fried fresh anchovies (nothing like anchovies in a jar), fried grouper, fried baby squid, sea bass baked in rock salt, vegetables, and dessert. The waves, 50 yards away, are crashing beautifully on the shore as we eat a lot and drink wine and venders near by draw tattoos on their customers.

The next stop is Algeciras from which the ferry leaves Spain, passes close to Gibraltar, and arrives in Tangiers, Morocco after a couple hours. The number of ferries is about to climb abruptly for the summer, when Moroccans living in Europe drive home with supplies they've bought for their families. Their cars and SUV's will be full of gifts and sometimes include a refrigerator on the top of the van. We spent most of the ferry ride on the deck enjoying the view of both coasts and ships in-between. (I should have done the same thing on the way back but was reading inside; those who stayed out saw a whale breach the surface of the water and also saw dolphins.) In Morocco we acquire another guide provided by the government to give us the best possible interpretation of what we are seeing. He is lavish in his praise of the king, who is outrageously rich in a country where most people are poor. He maintains a huge palace in every major city of his kingdom for his visits to the cities, and he enjoys an income of some 6 billion dollars a year. One palace covers 200 acres, including a 9-hole golf course. His picture graces the walls of houses and businesses almost as much as did that of Saddam Hussein before he was overthrown. One of the five tenets of the Muslim faith is "Give to the poor," but the king believes in moderation in all things. (The other four tenets are pray five times daily, fast during Ramadan, believe in one God only, and make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj once in a lifetime, if you are financially able.

Some celebrities have just been using the road we are on when we leave Tangiers for Fes. Police and soldiers are positioned at 24 or 30 foot intervals to secure the road; this goes on for miles. We find this really amazing. It suggests how cheap labor is in Morocco-the government can afford to post hundreds of guards any time it wants to. People do jobs in Morocco that would bring in so little income that you can hardly believe what you are seeing. Many men are shepherds caring for flocks as small as fifteen sheep or goats; you'd think it would be more cost-effective to have a series of fences rather than a shepherd, but they don't have fences, and they have lots of people who work for practically nothing. We see men winnowing wheat by throwing it in the air by the rake full, hoping the grain will separate from the chaff. We see small tents in open country for men while they travel away from home to find work.

Much of the land in Morocco is irrigated; where it is not irrigated, much of it is virtually desert with a few scrub plants growing. Large cement troughts a few feet above the ground run for mile after mile. Periodically there are small pools of irrigation water; boys play in these in the hot midday sun.

Periodically when the bus stops in Morocco the driver and tour guide carefully look under the bus and often find very young boys who have hidden there so that they can escape on the ferry when we go back to Spain. Lydia says they try to find them before they get to the docks; if not, and the police find them, the boys will be beaten. The boys are desperate to get out and find a better future, but this is an extremely dangerous way to escape for a boy, who would leave his family behind and be too young to thrive in Europe, especially without identity papers.

We have traveled to a third-world country and have a rude awakening when we stop for a break in mid afternoon in a small Berber town. (Berbers are the original inhabitants of Morocco.) It is a bar with bathrooms for men and women but no running water. Both men and women stand above a hole in the ground; they don't wash their hands or wipe themselves unless they brought their own paper. There are many bugs in the air, and the rooms smell bad. Interestingly, we do not encounter quite such a dusty, dirty place again throughout our trip, but we pay exorbitant prices sometimes for water or coffee so that we can use cleaner toilet facilities.

In Morocco, in cities and in the country, there are trucks for transport, particularly of farm produce-including sugar cane, melons, etc.-but mules, which are overloaded with huge piles of boxes or cartons of bottles or animal skins, and people, who are overloaded as well, are the beasts of burden. Mules are everywhere, particularly in farming areas and in the marketplaces.

In Fes the highlight of our trip is the medina or market, where people shop for virtually everything; it has thousands of tiny booths selling meat, fish, vegetables, silver, brass, and carpets. We were told not to buy the brass because it would discolor in weeks. We now have three guides, Lydia, Najeeb (who stays with us throughout Morocco), and a city guide; we also have a boy hired to help keep us together and his friend as well as another man, who says he thinks he has been hired to guide us; I don't know if he gets paid. We are guests at a rug store, which is very large while most shops are tiny. We are offered tea with mint, the national drink. We see a display of carpets and are invited to buy. One after another is brought out and unfolded for us to see; some are woven by Berber women; some are more sophisticated products of Morocco. A salesman sees that I am interested almost before I realize it, and then there is no peace until we pick out a 5x7 rug and it is paid for and taken back to be stored in the bus, but it's a beautiful rug and we are happy new owners. Three people bought rugs, so this was a worthwhile business venture for the owner and his large staff.

We go to a fabric store, and a clerk puts a traditional cloth headdress on Randall, one of the men from Australia; he's happy with it on his head and buys a man's loose-fitting robe that covers his body, a jellaba, selling for about $100. The Moroccan guides are all men and all wear this robe usually with pants and shirts underneath.

A lot of us are happy to relax at the pool in the afternoon, and then we have dinner with entertainment. The first performer is a belly dancer; many people will think the one we see the next night at our hotel is better. She is followed by a man who balances trays of drinks, and then teaches one of the younger women how to balance a tray while crawling on the floor. Finally there is a mock wedding of two members of our group in Moroccan costume. Accompanying all of it is a musical group with a singer and three players performing Moroccan music on a violin, guitar, and a hand drum.

Our next stop is Marrakech where we see a beautiful light show in a park that symbolically depicts the history of the city, which has been conquered in its history by Spain and France. But it is not a political show, but a cultural story. It takes place partly on an island on an artificial lake in front of you. The first character is an observer like us. There is also a narrator and princesses and conquerors who played their part in the city's history. It is beautifully done, and though we can't follow the story, except Lydia who knows a lot of Moroccan history and has seen the show before, we really enjoy it. It includes fountains of water, beautiful costumes, excellent dancing and a fire works display. Pictures appropriate to the story are projected on to the sprays of water that act as movie screens. Sue, our friend from New Zealand, wonders who pays for it. There is only a small audience, and it is an expensive production, so the city or a benefactor has decided to keep it going long after the intended schedule. I'm glad we saw it.

We all enjoy our visit to a Berber village. It's such a popular idea to take tourists to this village that when we arrive, we have to wait for another tour group to leave, so we go to a nearby hotel. Lots of vendors find us whenever the bus stops. Lydia tells us a story of a woman who bought so much stuff that she couldn't take it home, so she has to have a flea market in her room when it is time to leave. We get the point. Then we walk up the dry, dusty hill to the village. The houses are made of clay. The roof has a base of wood strips, possibly small tree trunks, then a layer of plastic to keep out the rain, and then straw and mud, like the walls. This is a somewhat larger house than many, and they have lived there a while and added rooms. In the kitchen on oven, which looks like a very large clay pot upside down she bakes bread. A much larger upside down pot is a sauna for the family, but it looks as if you'd be going into an oven if you went in. In the main room she serves us bread and butter and pancakes with honey and mint tea. It all tastes good, and Najeeb talks to her and translates her answers about her house. We are in the main room, which has couches and low tables like coffee tables. There is a staircase up in the corner without a roof overhead. Najeeb says there is not much rain, and there is a drain hole when it does rain. If it gets cold, they will use the side rooms, which can be closed. Behind a curtain, there is a refrigerator, which is probably kept out of sight because it doesn't exactly fit the theme of this visit, which is life in a peasant village, but it's probably the only refrigerator in the village.

This woman entertains groups like this all day and is probably much better off than her neighbors; her husband is a farmer and greets us as we leave and go back to our bus. You have to wonder how the people feel about these rich people who come on luxurious buses and stop to look briefly at their lives but cannot speak and then drive on. They often wave to us, as when we stop where women are washing clothes and rugs in the river and children are playing and we stop to take their pictures. Sometimes they ask for things. Lydia gives them small coins and pens when they ask and then explains that we shouldn't give presents to children who beg, because they will want to beg rather than go to school, but she is more warm-hearted than practical, and she gives us this warning after she gives out a few gifts.

In Casablanca we stay in a very nice hotel, but we do not know that it was bombed not too long ago. We learn this from an Afro-American singer who is performing in a hotel bar that is supposed to be reminiscent of the one in the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman film, Casablanca. We invited him over and he had a drink with us and talked about how he travels from one hotel to another throughout the year. He has a beautiful bass voice and sings "Old Man River" for us. As we leave Casablanca, Lydia says the events of the movie Casablanca would really have happened in Tangiers, a major port; during World War II, many people were trying to go from there to neutral Portugal. As we ride, she puts on a tape of Casablanca so we can enjoy the love story once again.

We get up at 5:00 am to get to the ferry to go back to Spain, Algeciras and then Seville. Lydia points out that all words beginning in "Al" are Arab in origin, suggesting how pervasive the influence is in Spain. The other major evidence is the architectural elements-minarets (towers, some of which are now attached to churches rather than mosques), key-hole shaped doors, delicate plasterwork, archways framing vistas, and floral and geometric carvings in Marble and stone. It is hot when we get to Seville. It has orange trees that fruit constantly, rather than in one sudden crop. Nearby are also cork trees; taking the bark to make the cork doesn't seem to kill the trees. In Seville we also see the huge tobacco factory where Carmen works in Bizet's opera Carmen. In our free time Marty and I ride and walk out to the two bridges by the Spanish architect Calatrava. One is called the Trojan horse, because the huge part on one side of the river resembles a horse's head. People call the other on an upside-down basket At night we see Flamenco dancers. Lydia thinks these dancers are very authentic; if you could go into the streets of Seville where Roma people live, you would see much the same dancing

Now we go on to Lisbon (pronounced Ligzboa by the residents), the only city we see in Portugal. Portugal is a small country whose borders have never changed, unlike most European states. Our Lisbon guide tells us this s sound, like gz, is the most prominent element of the spoken language when you hear it because there are so many sses and all plural words end in s.

Like Spain, it was ruled by a dictator for a large part of the latter 20th Century, which put it out of touch with Europe until the dictatorship ended in 1974. It's a beautiful modern city; we were there in the middle of the semi-finals for the European cup in soccer but left before Greece defeated both the Czech Republic and then Portugal to win the cup. So the city was even more lively and crowded than usual in the summer, with hordes of fans from all the countries in the competition wearing their team colors and hair or wigs with team colors and draping themselves in their countries' flags.

In the evening we enjoyed a big meal and fado music, which is played on guitars and other stringed instruments like mandolins and sung by women or men-sometimes one man sings and another responds from the audience, as if it were spontaneously, but it is too well done and beautiful to be accidental. They sing about love and disappointed lovers and so on. It's a national specialty, and we were glad to see it in a large restaurant with a small stage for the performers. There were also Portuguese folk dancers performing dances representing different part of the country's cultures, with emphasis on the culture of fishing villages.

Salamanca, Spain, is a university city with a beautiful cathedral. We only have a few hours to look around but see enough to know we want to go back. In the area of the cathedral and university is a huge mall with many shops and tables in the mall, and everyone is drinking and enjoying a beautiful evening.

We return to Madrid for our last night. On the way we can only look at and admire Avila. The old city wall is completely in tact, which makes it look like a movie set. It is perched on the side of a hill. For those who have another day in Spain, Lydia recommends a day tour to Avila and Segovia; we hope to come back and take that trip. We leave early on Sunday morning after breakfast, and are very happy that the people we enjoyed the most and had become most acquainted with, from Australia and South Africa, have all gotten up early to say goodbye to us before we go to the airport. We hope to see them again, and Marty has already sent pictures or e-mail notes to some of them.
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