Friday, March 15, 2013

Strollin down the avenue that's known as A1A

After my 24 hour transit home from the dark heart of Africa. Well, ok, the slightly shaded shoulder of Africa, I was faced to a monumental decision...  what to do for the rest of the vacation time.  I had almost a week left before I had to return to work and the thought of sluffing about Louisville was unappealing.  I had a plan but it was getting more and more complex by the minute.

Part of the problem was I had no desire to jump back on an airplane after a 10 hour hiatus from being in transit. The other part of the problem was just getting to my intended destination, the Corn Islands of Nicaragua.  TO get there cheaply, it involved an all night jaunt from Louisville to Managua, via Miami.  The on arrival, purchasing a ticket on a local puddle jumper out to the island.  The thought of another 20 hour travel day really didn't appeal... and that was just to get there. SO deciding to delay my trip to those particular islands (because they are definitely on a must visit list... a warm tropical Caribbean island that's not yet overrun with mega resorts and cruise ships...  Sign me up!

But still wanted to get away from it all... and quick.  After a full nights sleep and excavation of a mountain of dirty laundry, I decided on a course of action.  I'm going out Buffett style.  It was likely going to cost me more than I wanted to pay out, but I was heading to the Keys.  I formulated a plan, and then a back up plan.  There was a browntail jet heading to Miami that afternoon.  Once there, I would find a place to hole up for the night before striking out to Key West first thing in the morning.  Not really sure if I was driving or flying down to the islands...  and I'd yet to find a place in the islands that fit my budget for sleeping, but i won't be deterred by such minor things. 

After carrying the big pack around Europe and Spain, I was motivated to keep it light, so a small back pack was all I took.  How much space do a pair of thongs take up anyway?   Before leaving Louisville, I booked a room in an airport hotel for convenience.  There was the South Beach option available of course (for a fee). But with the plans of a short night and a quick escape, proximity to the airport mattered.  I had put a couple requests out on VRBO (which if you ever need a place and hotels don't fit the need/price, look there.  I've found good deals in Europe and the US).  Unfortunately, none of the owners responded (in all fairness, I'd only really given them about a 12 hour window on a Sunday for a Monday arrival).  Looking at flights from MIA to Key West, I found that I could either take the 6 AM flight or risk not making it at all.  And the flights leaving looked even worse (Airplane geek info, Key West  has quite a short runway for large jets to use, which result in restrictions on the number of people they can take...and all looked to be full)... so time for plan B... Priceline!

I'll admit my snobbery when it comes to a few things, one being domestic hotels.  Overseas, a $5 hostel or guesthouse will do for some reason.  But not in the US.  It's weird I know.  So I started naming my own price, and got a good deal on 4-start property on Mallory Square.  Add a rental car and the plan's complete. 

Other thing with this trip, it was fairly unadvertised.  I didn't really tell anyone where I was off to or for how long.  I kind of was wanting to disconnect from life for a minute.  When I was asked (or in one case when the iLoJack app gave away my current position), I was forthcoming of y plans.  But for the most part I was just going to be warm and buzzed for a few days.  I'm happy to say Mission Accomplished. 
Everyone stops to watch the sunsets

I struck out early for the islands.  I would have loved a convertible, or better yet my bike, but I made do with the sunroof and windows down.  The three hour cruise down the Overseas Highway was nice.  It's a non hurried drive, and the further from Miami you get the less hurried life seems to get.  Sure I wanted to get there, but I also enjoyed the drive from island to island.  I was initially a little disappointed when crossing from Boca Chica Key into Key West proper.  Not at all what I had imagined, or remembered from my last brief visit there (a few years back I was on a cruise that stopped in for a few hours and I barely got any island time in).  But it looked like anytown Amurrica with strip malls and fast food a plenty.  Then, as if crossing into another country, the scenery changed and suddenly I was in the Key West of lore.  Once I found the hotel (which, according to Apple Maps required a drive down a permanently closed road), I was told my room wasn't yet available (it was early), so I checked my belongings with the bell desk (the whole small backpack) and was off to work on part 2 of the plan... being buzzed. 

As far as actual Key West Activities, I didn't do enough.  I made a point to walk down to Hemingway's place, and made it by the southernmost point.  I walked on a beach, but didn't take the boat out to the Dry Tortugas or do a jet ski tour.  Next time i will, but this trip I managed to entertain myself (and a few bartenders) with my scheming to steal the old wooden propeller hanging above the bar in Sloppy Joe's (off one of the first Pan Am flights between Key West and Havana... the first Pan Am route).  I'm almost done with the plan, and I may need some accomplices to help me make it work.  There was also the flip cup competition at Coyote Ugly (I lost) and the continuing Irish Pub Tour to keep me amused. 

The propeller at Sloppy Joe's...  it will be mine
I really enjoyed the all day live music available about the town.  And more so enjoyed the not having to run to a cruise ship just when things were getting fun on Duval.  I met a few interesting people, some just visiting... some were just visiting years ago and never managed to leave.  I'm thinking that's a good idea. 

When my days on the island were drawing to a close and no more sunsets would be watched, I sobered up and headed back to the mainland.  I felt rested and recharged, and amazingly not at all hungover, and looked forward to the drive back.  Even though i wasn't looking forward to the destination.  I"m thinking a return to the Keys for some rum drinks and conch salad should be an annual thing.  Anyone wanna go with?
Wearing the thongs in the Keys
So home I came, with a day to spare to get re adjusted to real life, stepping off the airplane into the falling snow.... ugh.  But it gives a goal to work toward.. early retirement.  So that's the end of the "big trip" for 2013.  A little sad it happened so early, but then again I know I'll be jaunting off hear and there through out the year.  There's weddings and birthday parties to attend.

The beginning of the long road ahead

Saturday, March 9, 2013

'The crowd caught a whiff of the crazy Casbah jive'

One of the things I touched on earlier involved the need to be a little on guard in the developing world for those trying to extort money from the rich American.  Marrakech, having a firmly establish tourist trade, is no different.  And it's not usually done with a high level of malice, but just the way things are done.  Anyone who's been in a souk or an Asian market knows that capitalism is alive and well regardless of the "official" national economy and every price is negotiable, and should be negotiated.  It's an adjustment one has to make when venturing about, and no amount of research you do prior to putting boots on the ground will really get you an accurate price list for goods and services.  That being said, there have been times were I know, in retrospect, I was "taken".  I felt my second full day in Marrakech was one such event. 

I had made arrangements with an individual (named Abdul, go figure) for a day trip to the Ourika Valley just outside of Marrakech.  The valley itself is dotted with villages and ends at a climb up the hill to the falls.  The price I had agreed to paid, with no research, was 600 Dirham for the trip out.  This got me a driver, a guide, and private van.  Oh well, it's done and paid for so I might as well enjoy it, and leave behind the slightly paranoid feeling that soon I could be a feature on a Al Jazeera video in the near future.  Getting an early start, we rolled out of the Medina at 8 AM. 

On the drive out, new developments and housing starts were pointed out.  New Riads being built outside the bustle of the city where for a few thousand dollars a night you to can live like a sultan.  Where the old city behind the ancient walls seems to be a destination for the slightly more adventurous, developers are building more upscale accomodation for the well heeled traveler.  These places were huge.  There are also multimillion dollar private residences dotting the landscape.

Driving on, the full impact of the tourist trade is evident. Any scenic pull off comes with a group of people trying to sell you some trinket (according to the guide, most of these "authentic" Berber goods come directly from China).  Usually a polite "No" or "La Shakra" disperses the hawkers.  Being a good tour guide they have places of prearranged stops... such as a Berber house where the women have foregone their traditional Islamic ways to invite tourists in... for a small donation of course.  But there was a breakfast of traditionally made bread with honey and olive oil.  And of course the ever present mint tea (which if I haven't mentioned it prior, is yummy).  As we were finishing up our bread, a busload (literally) of French tourists roll in.  Perfect time to leave. 

Driving on, I did elect to forgo the camel ride (been there, done that, not a fan of camels) and we headed on to another stop of local ingenuity to see how Argan oil is made (traditionally).  It's an involved process that results in an oil coveted both for skin care as much as for flavor.  I do wish I had brought more cash, I probably would have picked up something to bring home with... and not cook with. 

Before I get too negative sounding here, let me state that the scenery was beautiful and there was an occasionaly tidbit offered about the history and the demographics of the area.  For instance, each village was a single extended family.  Each has a mosque and a madrasa, except one village... which is Jewish.  There were, according to the guide, once about 27 Jewish villages in the valley, now only one or 2 families remain.  The Jews have been in the area long before Islam came.  Amazingly, for the most  it seems like a peaceful coexistence.  If a male family member gets fed up living with the family, and he has the money, he can take his wife and kids and start a new village.  When women marry, they leave their family village and move in with their husbands family.  Usually married couples get at least a private room in a house (isn't that convenient) where as unmarried family members (of the same sex) share a large room.  Nothing like sharing sleeping quarters with 12 of your favorite uncles, brothers and cousins.
Ourika Valley VIllage
After the argan oil stop and sampling (an now with softer, more fragrant hands), we moved on farther up the valley.   I've found in my years of globetrotting I'm not a big fan of the "organized" tour precisely because they involve stops I don't care to make at shops and food stalls that the tour guide pre arranges, for a little baksheesh.  It's just not my kind of thing, but suppose it beats getting lost in the Atlas mountains never to be seen again. 

All along the road into the valley, there are numerous guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, stores, etc... catering to the trekking crowd.  In the summer, there is a draw to the hiking in the mountains and the cooler temperatures (Marrakech routinely gets up to over 50C).  At the end of the road, I decided to take a short (hour) hike up to the falls.  This requires a guide (and payment) to get up there.  There's a reason.  It's not the Western style walk up a well beaten path complete with handrails, but instead good old school walking through the woods hopping from rock to rock trying not to fall, with one exception.  Along the way there are several shops and stalls, some perched precariously on the side of the ravines.  Of course, the guide had the one he preferred to make into a rest stop.
Ouirka Valley, near the end of the road
And so, we pressed on.  There are seven separate "falls" to see.  To hike all of them, it's a 3 to 4 hour journey up the hill.  I wasn't up for that.  So we made it to the second falls and I was pretty much done.   Being out of shape and of bad knee, I felt it was better to stop now and head down.  But I'm definitely glad I made the climb I did (originally i wasn't going to do any hiking).  So back down the hill we went and heading back down the valley toward Marrakech.  On the way, we passed flocks of school kids on their lunch break walking home.  It looks oddly like school kids everywhere.  Hrrmm..  People are kinda the same almost everywhere... who knew?? 

A couple hours later I'm back in Marrakech and stop by the Jardin Majorelle.  These gardens were designed by the artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s, and later owned partly by Yves Saint-Laurent who's ashes were scattered here.  Made up of mostly desert type flora around bright blue fountains, it's very subdued and relaxing to walk about the garden, like walking through a lifesize work of art. 
Jardin Majorelles
After the Jardin, the last stop was an art gallery (where it seems everything was for sale and "original".. ugh).  I did see a couple metal astrological globes (that may one day find their way to a future abode), but not having the cash or a credit card on me, no purchases were made.  I felt almost bad for the guys trying to sell me a Berber rug (after I reiterated I'm not buying) who spent lots of time and energy laying out rug after rug.  In truth, had I not been on a budget and had a place I felt worthy of a new rug, I'd probably own one now. 

Thus ended my day trip.  I know it comes off slightly negative above, but I was really happy I took the excursion.  It just reminds me how much I don't like being herded into stores, but at least the herding came with amazing scenery and a little bit of imparted knowledge.

Sunset over Marrakeh from La Salama
Being late afternoon when I returned to the Riad, I grabbed some dirham I had stashed there and headed off again.  As I came out of the passage into the Njemaa El Fnaa, the screaming from the minarets kicked off again.  Answering the call to prayer, I headed into Le Salama for a cold beer.  Having been here the day before, I really liked the view (this day there was no rain and the snow covered Atlas mountains were clear in the distance) and the two for one all day happy hour.  The spring rolls appetizer was delicious, even if I'm not exactly sure what was in them.  La Salama, atmosphere wise, is a little reminiscent of Rick's cafe from the movie, which they seem to be going for based on the decor of Bogey pictures on the wall.   I sat down and before I knew it I was in a conversation with the neighboring tables.  Turns out the British couple to my right had been up at the falls earlier that day and had actually seen me coming down form the hike.  They too made all the same stops, but for 250 dirham more than I paid.  So maybe I wasn't "taken" as much as I thought.  The next few hours were spent talking to amongst ourselves (along with a a couple from Belfast and another couple who live in London, but went to school in the US). 

After an evening of comparing travels and tales with citizens of the world with a spectacular sunset, and of course enjoying the happy hour special, it was down from the roof terrace for the belly dancing show.  Which may or may not have involved select audience members from the table I was sitting being pulled out to join the dancers.  From there it was back out to the square for another delicious street tagine and on to listen to some of the musicians playing in the square.  As the drumming and singing moved late into the night, it was time to head to sleep after a long, but very satisfying, day of natural beauty, meeting fellow travelers, and belly dancing.

Belly Dancer, La Salama in Marrakech
The next day it was time to start the journey back home.  After spending the morning relocating a shop in the souk to pick up a painting I saw when hiding from the rain a couple days earlier (Success! and I even got the "first customer" special pricing... which was then negotiated down about 50%) and a final cappuccino overlooking the Djemaa, I headed off to the airport. 

A couple side stories, one night while perusing the souks I saw what looked to be an Arab beatdown in progress.  A teen had apparently stolen or just pissed off an older (maybe in his 20's) guy who proceeded smack him around for good measure.  And while sitting in the airport waiting for check in, a man was being led around by a helper (the kind of helper that in US pushes the wheelchairs) while being followed by a woman.  I'm thinking the man was blind, because he would turn in the general direction of the woman and say something very animated with much hand gesturing and flailing.  This went on for a few minutes, they would move in and out of my view.  Each time the blind man would stop and turn toward the woman (but not always facing her directly), he help would try and pull him on.  At one point, the blind man managed to get his pimp hand in contact with the woman in a classic "bitch slap" before they all exited the terminal.  I do so enjoy people watching. 

From there it was check in, then through security and a non working metal detector (why they didn't use one of the other 3 I have no idea... maybe they enjoyed the patdowns???),  And onto Madrid via the airline the really gives you no frills... RyanAir.  Connecting up in Madrid after a couple hours with a browntail, it was off to Louisville via Cologne and Philadelphia.  This time I remember to get the correct passport stamps so hopefully the future will be free of Customs harassment.  Almost exactly 24 hours after leaving Marrakech, I walked into my apartment, dumped my pack out onto the floor and started doing two weeks worth of laundry.  Still having a week left before needing to be back at work, i started looking for some place to head to pass the time.

Morocco Souvenir... soon to be framed
All in all, though there were unexpected costs and annoyances, and the occasional slight detour, it was a great trip.  I had a blast and would be interested in returning both to Southern Spain and Morocco.   For some reason, maybe it comes with age, these kind of trips are as easily undertaken as they were a decade ago.  Then again, 10 years ago it was only Europe and Australia that I seemed to head to and those destinations seem more comfortable than say North Africa or Cambodia.  But once I get going, it gets easier and I tend to relax a little and start to enjoy the actual journey more than stressing about what might happen.   Perhaps next time seeing different cities (that haven't yet become tourist meccas) and a trip out to the desert (I'll again take the organized tour...  I don't want to be lost wondering the desert for the rest of what will surely be a short life) and push the comfort level a little more.   Anyone interested in going with??

Monday, March 4, 2013

Take the train from Casablanca going south Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Morning came to find me heading to Casa Voyageurs train station to move on to Marrakech, once again traveling in first class style for the total for $14.  I was a little early so I grabbed a quick baguette with fromage and cafe creme (fancy french for cheese sammich and a coffee).  When you passed from the lobby of the station to the platforms, there's a couple guards checking tickets, but while waiting I noticed that one could seemingly just walk from the other side of the tracks and not even be bothered.  Other amusing observations, if your late for your train and it's about to pull out, it's perfectly acceptable to, instead of taking the stairs and walkway under tracks, to just down off the platform and run in front of the soon to depart train, even if your a middle aged woman carry a couple bags.

A little description of the Moroccan train lay out, at least the first class:  There is one car, usually the first one, with an aisl down one side and 9 or 10 compartments.  Each compartment has 6 seats, 3 on each side and face each other.  On the side against the window, there's a small table that the two people sitting in the window seats can use.  This time, I was assigned the middle seat between an older woman who spoke Arabic and some French (and often loudly into her phone) and a younger Moroccan woman who did speak English.  Later in the ride I learned she was traveling with her sister to school to take Exams.  It was amusing to hear their conversation switch from Arabic to French to English without pause.  They were coming from Rabat, and based on the appearance were part of the wealthier side of Morocco.  But still very nice and provided some good info on Marrakech.

Rounding out the compartment was a couple from Canadia.  They had just flown in from Montreal via Paris and were on the last leg for the day.  They were both very nice, though the wife preferred to nap while the husband preferred to chat.  But it made the ride pass.  Funny enough, the next day, in a city of 3 million, I happened to duck under an awning to get out of a heavy downpour, and we met up again. 

The scenery on this ride was much nicer than the train ride from Tangier.  There seemed be a lot less in the way of random garbage strown about, and general lack of people about.  It was a bit of a barren landscape, but not really desert.  There was ample vegetation to be round, but still very rocky and looked like would become very arid if the rain went away for a while.

Koutoubia Mosque, tallest structure in Marrakech and he landmark used for navigation
Then out of nowhere, Marrakech!  The city is basically split into the medina (the ancient walled city) and Ville Nouveau (the new city outside the walls).  In a credit to the French occupiers, they ordered that all new construction of the European style city be made outside the walls preserving the ancient parts.  That being said, the Medina hasn't been left as it was in 1500 or so.  All the modern trappings of civilization have been installed... power, sewer, drainage, etc.   They have an ordinance in the city that no building can be taller than 4 or 5 (i can't remember exactly) floors, excluding minarets.  The rule causes some sprawl, but keeps you from feeling like you're in a big city.

After disembarking, I made my way to the riad I had booked for the next few nights.  After finding a ride to the medina (which i overpaid) and a person to take me to the riad (who I also ended up overpaying) I found the place.  Even though I spent more than I should have to get there, it was nice not to wander around the alleys and passages carrying my pack. Anyways, I arrived at my riad to dine it little more than a heavy wooden door from the outside.  However, once inside, it was more than I had expected.  The pictures online didn't do the place justice.  I was met by Muhammed (fyi, everyone in Morocco is named Muhammed or Abdul I think), who handed me aint tea and checked me in.  Unlike a hotel, it was all very informal and relaxed and he was quite helpful for getting around the area.
Riad Casa Lalla Courtyard
Side note:  a riad is a traditional townhouse in the medina that is built around a courtyard.  The one I chose, Casa Lalla, has been redone with about 10 rooms or so.  It is owned by a french couple who are famous for the restaurant they run out of the riad.  Because it was winter, and there was rain about, the courtyard was covered by a plastic roof.  There were 2 floors of rooms and a terrace on the roof with tables, couches, and hammocks where you could see the Atlas mountains in the distance.  My room, one of the smallest offered, on the ground floor with a window that opened up onto the courtyard.  The bed was on a loft about the bathroom/sitting area.  And all for a reasonable price!  If the reader should ever make it to Marrakesh (or Fez or Menkes) I highly suggest skipping the international chain hotels and finding a nice riad.  The only downside was the 5:30 "wake up call" that really can't be avoided.

After checking and getting settled, I headed up to the Djemaa El-Fna, the main square of the medina.  Billed as the longest continuously running entertainment venue in the world, the square is packed in the morning with carts selling fresh orange juice and other various trinkets.  As the day goes on, more and more street perfomers begin to show up, form henta tattoo artists to snake charmers to male belly dancers until night when traditional Gnaoua drum circles, story tellers, and Berber musicians begin their performances.  There also rows of food stalls serving traditional meals, though I'd been told to avoid the couscous there (wasn't properly prepared) and also don't have the fish (could kill you).  The square took on a bit of a life of its own, and there was plenty of amusement to be had.

Djemaa el-Fnaa from a cafe terrace

After getting my bearings (and a cappuccino) on a terrace overlooking the Djemaa, i dove in and walked around.  It's been a while since I've been in an Arabian bazaar environment.  Everyone is trying to sell you something, or asking more dirham to show you around someplace.  It tends to get annoying everyone hawking things at you, but it is part of the experience.  Andafter a few hours you acclimate.  It's hard to do any real "browsing" of any of the shops, as the salesman is on you, and if you don't see something you like he'll look in the back and surely find something to spend money on.  I'd also been warned that there's an influx of "traditonal" Moroccan goods for sale that have been imported from China.  I didn't get a picture, but the most amusing store along the Djemaa was selling kids shirts and souveners, which they had cleverly displayed on child size mannequins and hung them, by the neck, above the entrance.  At first it looked like a gallows for toddlers.

I found dinner at a stall in the square (the "no.1 rated" one according to some guide book I've never heard of... so their menu said).  Street food in the third world can be an adventure.  Avoiding the fish, I went for a "meat" tagine.  Basically it was type of stew cooked in a clay pot with a coned top (which is actually what a "tagine" is).  It's considered sort of a bachelors stew and generally cooked all day.  It was very tasty and came with traditional bread.  After meandering about the square for a couple hours I headed up for another mocha from the top terrace of a cafe overlooking the square.  And then the rain started.  Time to call it a night.  Back to the riad (which i found with only 2 wrong turns), where I purchased a bottle of local red wine (I didn't drink the whole thing but they kindly stored it for me until I did) and planned the next day.

The next morning I woke up to rain.  It wasn't particularly steady or heavy, just annoying really.  But would dampen (ha) my plans for walking around all day.  My expert weather opinion said it would clear up by afternoon (it didn't, not until about 8 PM), so for the morning I bought a ticket on the big red tourist bus. It took around most the new city, and some of the old city that has streets that are wide enough for a bus.  It worked well that i could hop on and hop off when I wanted, so i road the whole route, found lunch (in the new town... pizza and beer) and watched a downpour.  The hopped back on the bus, luckily timing my time off the bus when the rains seemed to abate and back on during downpours.   Worked out well and i was able to walk around a few of the gardens and other sights.  I finally alighted near the Jewish quarter of the medina and took in a couple museums, one of artifacts from desert tribes from around Northwest Africa.  it was interesting, if a bit unorganized but for the approximate $1 entry fee it was entertaining (and dry).  Next I walked over to the Bahia Palace.

Bahia Palace
They spent a lot of time making this place all fancy for the Sultan.  It's beautiful tile work and carving was really inspiring.  I meandered through the building snapping pictures and getting ideas for the dream house i plan to build.. someday.  After the Bahia palace I headed for another museum...  at which point I got turned around in the narrow allyways and arrived at their door 4 minutes after they closed.  The the rains came!  So far that day I had dodged downpours but this time, I was caught.  I finally found an awning to duck under to try to dry out a little... and bumped into (literally) the Canadians I met on the train.  The rest of the evening I served as their guide about the souks (as they were totally lost but in a fun way and I had  map on the phone that showed me exactly where I was without incurring roaming charges (thank you Lonely Planet).  After some haggling, we found a terrace bar with two for one happy hour and took refuge inside.  We ended up staying longer than planned due to a heavy downpour.

Medina Passage
 We split ways later and i headed  off to fine some dinner.  A nearby hotel rated pretty good (if pricey) on the couscous meter so I stopped in.  Yes it was pricey, but the couscous was tasty so I though OK... it's bad really.  Then the belly dancers started.  Suddenly the prices seemed reasonable.  I also started wondering, how in a Muslim country where woemn are generally required to be covered head to toe does a belly dancer get away with being nearly naked and gyrating about?  Are these shunned women (which would be sad for the one dancing about while i dined.. she seemed kind of young to be shunned already) or is it just a little bit of allowed historical hypocrasy.

By this time the rains had stopped and the stars were out.  I took a few more ot the perfromances around the square before heading back.  I had an early wake up to take a trip out the Ourika Valley the next day...  which wasn't without some apprehension.  More on that in the next installment. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Of all the gin joins in all the towns in all the world

Moving on after Gibraltar was tough.  I woke up early and took off for the ferry terminal to catch the boat to Africa.  And more so this morning I had a hard time dealing with the lack of a second language.  It may have been a side effect of tiredness or just general apprehensiveness about the whole day.  It was going to be a lot of moving about.  So shortly before 8 AM I boarded a bus to Talifa.  From there it was on to Tangier via the FRS high speed ferry.  Little note, apprently there are two ferry ports in Tangier... Tangier Ville, the one right by the town, and Tangier Med, one about 45 minutes or so out of town... which seems kind of a misnomer to call it Tangier anything. 

Since the plan involved a tight connection with a train, I took the ferry to Ville, which required the bus ride to Tarifa.  At any rate, I finally managed to get the first stamp in my new passport, a Spanish exit stamp.  Seemingly an easy task for most, not so much really for me.  Without getting into details, the way I entered the EU didn't involve an entry stamp, and I had to explain this to the Customs officer in Spain when I went to leave.  Luckily, I had kept some supporting documentation and along with my work ID i convinced her I had not snuck in nefariously. 

Well, I was finally leaving Europe for the African portion of the adventure.  It's amazing how different the world is a short distance across the straits.  From the European/western way of just paying the price listed and a normal up and up  manner of doing things, it's back to the haggle and harass mentality.  So fresh off the boat, I started looking for a way to obtain the coin of the realm.  I didn't see an ATM or change desk.  I didn't see one when I left that gave out Dirhams.  I found a cafe and asked about a money exchange.  The guy behind the counter said hold on, went and got his buddy and asked how much I wanted to exchange, I told him he whipped out his wallet and that was that.  I don't think I got the best exchange rate possible, but I also didn't have to pay a transaction fee.  So I'll take it. 

And it was off in a taxi to the train station.  Again, price negotiation and  here I am in a "grand taxi", or a worn out old Mercedes.  Once at the train station I realized I had wrote down the wrong departure time for the the next train to Casablanca.  And barely made it.  Approximately $18 later i settled into my first class seat for the next 4 and half hours to watch the scenery go by.  Travel advice, splurge for first class on Moroccan trains.  Its a small upcharge (relatively speaking) and worth for assigned, big comfy seats.

Pulling out of Tangier
Surprise number one:  The place was green!  I was expecting desert and sand.  Nope, grass and some trees and plants in every direction.  I was informed that the coastal area had been receiving a lot of rain of late, so it was particularly lush.  As far as northern Morocco goes, they could use a trash plan.  Seems the current plan is to throw it all in piles near the train tracks.  The farther out of Tangiers the better, but still kind of spoiled the scenery.  I was amused to see people pulling to stops along the way with mules and carts to pick up those disembarking.  And despite the ramshackle appearance of some houses whisking by, they all had satellite dishes on the top which also amused me. 

As we pulled into Casablanca, it had the appearance that everyone said it does, a busy big port city. Not particularly scenic.  There are some nice parts, an ancient medina, some nice art deco buildings, and a big mosque.  That's about it really.  Though the NY Times says it's a place to go in 2013, i may have missed out on what they were so fond of.  Of course, he Times tends to cater towards... wealthier travelers. 

At any rate, made it to my hotel and settled in for a bit.  Then out to explore.  The biggest attraction in town is the Hassan II Mosque.  It looked close outside the window, so I'll walk it.  Yeah, I need to quit doing that, it's never that close.  On the walk, i thought the shortcut I took would be fine, turns out it was through a rather... unscenic neighborhood.  Oops.  But the plaza and gardens around the mosque were lovely.  The place was huge, though I'm not allowed in.

Hassan II Mosque
On the walk back, I had planned to stop by Rick's.  Denied!! They were closed for a couple hours between lunch and dinner.  Not to be deterred, I returned later to experience the reproduction.

"Casablanca" is a favorite film of mine, and I pretty much decided to stop in Casablanca just to go to Rick's.  Owned by an American expat, she's gone to extreme lengths to reproduce as much as possible from the movie (there was never a "Rick's" in Casablanca).  And done a fine job.  It was well worth the stop to dine with the essence of Bogey and Bergman.  A few cocktails, and a jazz quartet (though I was hoping for Sam to play it again) made for a lovely night.  It was very hard to resist the urge to spout movie quotes.   Calling it a night, I was thanked by "Madame Rick" (the owner) for coming in and I headed back for a nice sleep.  The next morning, it was off to Marrakech.
Rick's Cafe

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Rockin' Around the Rock

The last two travelogues I wrote while still in Spain, so things were kind of fresh.  The next ones will be recollections composed sitting back in Louisville... 

After the short but impressionable stay in Cordoba, it was time to move on to the the coast.  Again, the chosen form of transit being the train.  This time it was nott he super high speed train but a slower, more mundane train.  Still, the scenery was great and since I was well rested I actually stayed awake for the ride.  Pulling out of Cordoba, the train had to stop and change gauge.  Apparently the rails in Spain for "local" service are a different width than the "international" service lines.  I've never experienced this, and while sitting on the side track all i could think was some poor pit crew is underneath change the wheels on a train. 

At any rate, I was off.  Destination was Algeciras.  The only reqgrent I have about this whole trip is not getting off the train in Ronda and spending an afternoon walking around what everyone tells me (in retrospect) is an amazing little town.  Made famous by Hemingway in "For Whom the Bell Tolls", the ancient town is set high on a gorge and is said to be just beautiful.  It did look lovely out the window, and after pulling out of Ronda, the rails wound down through the valley and gorges passing in and out of tunnels.  Quite surreal really.

outside of Ronda, Spain
Pulling into Algeciras, I was a little disappointed.  This was a modern spanish port town.  In other words dirty and industrial.  No wonder the guidebooks all said to spend as little time here as possible before moving on.  Algeciras does have a couple redeeming qualities, it's across a harbor from Gibraltar and the main jumping off point for ferries to Morocco.  I arrived in the early afternoon, and made my way to the hotel.  I splurged on this "4 Star" property, the Reina Cristina.  And I suppose, judging from the surrounding city, it was the best there is in town, and for only about €40 it was a good deal.  The hotel is actually a beautiful historic property opened in 1902 and has hosted numerous famous people from Winston Churchill to Sir Author Conan Doyle to Rock Hudson.  You may notice none of these are recently famous people. 

The hotel was fine enough and did harken back to a bygone era of travel, and the price was more than reasonable.  But it was not enough to amuse me for the afternoon, so off to the bus station and ride over to Tarifa to see what the was to see.  Tarifa is just over the hill so to speak from Algeciras, and is known as the Southernmost point of Continental Europe (and is actually further south than the cities of Tunis and Algiers in North Africa).  From the south end of town, you stand and look ahead 14 km and see Morocco, then look left at the Mediterranean and right at the Atlantic.

Looking across the straight of Gibraltar at (i believe) is Jebel Musa in Morocco, on the way to Tarifa

Tarifa is a beach town and popular with surfers, both kite and regular variety.  However this being middle of winter and a chill in the air, most the shops were closed for the season.  Still, i was able to walk down the Paseo Alameda and find a cafe and a cerveza, or pass through the old walled city.  I did notice that I was, by far, the person on the tourist office guest list that week that was the furthest from home.  I then caught the evening bus back to Algeciras as the sun set over the Atlantic.

The next morning I was up early and back to the bus station for the ride to La Linea.  From the La Linea station, i followed the herd the 300 meters to the border with Gibraltar.  The whole ride over "the rock" loomed out the window with the sun just coming up burning off the morning fog. (Yes I was that early, of course sunrise wasn't till like 830 too).  After "clearing" immigration into Gibraltar (which basically consisted of showing them I had a passport in my possession, but they couldn't be bothered to look past the cover or look in.  I was a little disheartened since I had now been in three countries and yet to get a stamp).  And then, one of the top things I really was looking forward to on this whole trip....

The nation of Gibraltar basically sits on a  peninsular, much of which is reclaimed land or the famous rock.  So due to this goegraphy, the widest point was chosen to for the airport.  And it's right by the border with the runway running the full length, and then some, from east to west.  Famous amongst us aviation nerds, because it's one of the few places in the world where you can easily and regularly walk right across and active runway.  When a plane is coming in, the shut the gates and hold the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicle (since the road bisects the runway) until the plane has landed and taxied back to the gate.  Yes, i really was excited to walk across the runway.

Why did the airplane cross the road?

Being early on a Saturday morning, most the shops in the town were yet to open.  Gibraltar is a tax free shopping area, so a lot of people come across to buy booze and other luxuries.  I found a pub that was open and had a fine full English breakfast.  Having skipped dinner the night before I may have inhaled the whole thing in one breath.  The old city looks like it was transported out of an English port town (for obvious reasons) and has the similar vibe, except the residents may suddenly without warning switch from the Queen's English to Spanish mid thought.  I left breakfast and walked toward the cable car station for a ride to the top of the rock, passing the Trafalgar Cemetery, where many of Lord Nelsons casualties reside after the Battle of Trafalgar.  I kept moving on, and passed a tour guide touting his drive around the rock tour.  Being cheap, and not wanting to wait for him to collect 3 more passengers, I declined and decided to take the cable car up, (it was £4 cheaper).  And up to the top I went.

Trafalgar Cemetery

The rock has been the scene of tons of military sieges and battles due to the uber-strategic location, so lot's or tunnels and embattlements dot the landscape.  There's also the natural formations and the monkeys (the only native primates in Europe live there, and no one is really sure how they got there).  So, from the top of the rock, I thought I'd just walk down and see some of the sights it being a beautiful sunny day, and about 60 degrees.  Yeah, not my best plan.  By the time I got about 2/3's down I was really wishing I had spent that £4.  I did stop at a few of the historical spots, and watched the monkeys scurry about. Then I staggered into the first pub at the bottom I could find, and downed 2 bottles of water and a pint of ale (not in that order).  By this time, the sun was shining bright and the streets were full of shoppers.  There was even a parade of redcoats through town, and I'm sure why.  After some meandering about seeing various monuments and shops, it was off to a different pub for a steak and ale pie for lunch.  A few more pub stops and it was time to head back to Algeciras for the night.  If i thought the immigration procedures getting into Gibraltar were slack, i discovered getting back into Spain was even less formal...  i didn't even see a customs agent.  I'd like to stay longer in Gibraltar sometime, but it's pricey and will have to wait for a future stop.  The next day was going to be busy, up early and off to Africa. 

And that'll be in the next installment.