Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Segovia and La Granja de San Ildefonso

What I had originally envisioned as a 4 day immersion in Segovia turned into a quick half-day side trip, as Suzanne was recovering from the flu and the kids were still threatening revolt from any further sightseeing. Segovia is an amazing city – quintessentially Spanish and stunningly beautiful, with a fairy tale castle, roman ruins, a gothic cathedral and a maze of narrow winding streets to explore with very interesting architecture on the surrounding buildings. It seemed to be a very vibrant cultural city as well, with lots going on around town. Hands down, the most amazing site was the roman aqueduct, built in the 1st century to bring water to the town. It is considered to be the finest example of roman engineering still standing today and it almost looks surreal as it towers high above the town. This is one of the few man-made features I have seen that left me with my jaw dropped to the floor. Suzanne and I would have liked to spend more time exploring the town, particularly the Alcazar, as well as the surrounding area but we were happy to at least have gotten a chance to spend some time here. Maybe next time we’ll do it without kids… Earlier in the week, we also managed to get out for an afternoon to La Granja de San Ildefonso, the site of a beautiful palace and gardens built by Philip V. Philip was the grandson of Louis XIV, and he built this site as his own personal retreat after spending his childhood in the gardens of Versailles. La Granja sits at the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama, which is still covered with snow in some spots (note to self…beautiful, but very cold in the winter!). The gardens are filled with tree-lined avenues and hidden squares with bizarre baroque fountains, which seemed a bit over the top when juxtaposed against the natural surroundings. At the end of the day, a number of the fountains were turned on, sending huge plumes of water into the air. Much to the kids’ delight, the winds had picked up and would blow the water into the crowds of people, who ran for cover. Most people cleared out quickly and soon, the only people left standing under the torrent were our three little knuckleheads. But they were having so much fun that we just let them be kids for a while. Fortunately we had a few jackets packed which came in handy as they emerged from this unexpected “water park” absolutely soaked to the bone!

Chillin’ out at San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Although for the most part, we locked in our travel plans for the remainder of our adventure year, we did have this open question of what to do with our 5 days before Salamanca. For a while, I’ve had my sites set on Segovia, about an hour north of Madrid. Coming out of Morocco, we were tired, dusty and suffering from a lingering GI distress. We were desperately in need of clean clothes and a good night’s sleep (2 hr. time difference meant sunrise at 5:30 am!). Unfortunately, we would be traveling during a two day Spanish national/provincial holiday weekend, so our housing options were limited. Plus, with a car packed to the gills, the thought of dealing with the logistics of a crowded city center was a non-starter. After a bit of on-line wrestling with an Arabic keyboard at an internet cafĂ©, I was able to book a townhouse in San Lorenzo de Escorial, site of the royal monastery built by King Philip V. It seemed close enough and at least gave us a place to unpack and regroup. When we got there, it was perfect on many levels - a huge place by European standards, and bright, roomy and comfortable. It sat at the base of a national park, with a great terrace view of the plateau and Madrid below. We were all wiped out from the rapid-fire itinerary and chaos of the last 9 days and it was a treat to chill out for a bit and just relax for a while. Plus, by this point, the kids were on the verge of mutiny from being dragged any more historical monuments. I officially resigned for a few days as family tour guide – which was received quite well by my family! We took a few days off and broke several rules in the spirit of recovery (e.g. Burger King for lunch, and plenty of movies/cartoons for the kids). Suzanne came down with the flu, so the kids and I toured the area around the monastary, went out to the local parks for a picnic, some fresh air, hikes, and good old fasion hide n’ seek. The surrounding area was beautiful and green this time of year and it reminded me of Chataqua Park in Boulder, CO.

Morocco – Giving Marrakech One Last Try

Coming back in to Morocco, we immediately felt more at ease, as our Riad was located in a more central part of town heavily traveled by tourists. It just felt more “friendly”, although there were certainly people all around us urging us to part with our money. However, we did have one scare after a quick dinner at a small cafeteria, when we returned to the Riad and Suzanne realized that she left her purse there – something she has NEVER done since I have known her! I had flashes of panic, wondering how we were ever going to cancel all our credit cards and important documents from a foreign country where we don’t speak the language and our phones weren’t working! Fortunately when I arrived, her purse was sitting on the table and the owner had been keeping an eye on it, awaiting our return. I thanked him profusely and returned to the Riad relieved, feeling the adrenaline still coursing through my veins. Over the next few days, we enjoyed several of the major palaces in the city, which interestingly were not well preserved and paled in comparison to the Alhambra and the Mezquita in Spain. It had always surprised me to hear people say “if you want to see the finest examples of Moroccan design, go to Spain”, but now I get it. In the spirit of cultural experience, I got sucked into one shopkeeper’s lair, ostensibly to enjoy a cup of mint tea and discuss life in America. Of course, this quickly degraded into a “perhaps you would like to look at a few carpets while you are here” marathon, where he must have brought out over 50 carpets for me to look at in spite of my countless protestations. What ensued was a painstaking review of which carpets I MIGHT find somewhat interesting. After rejecting 49 outright, I hesitated on one and that was enough to start the bargaining process. He drew out 2 columns on a sheet of paper and asked me to name a price. At first I refused, telling him we had absolutely no room to take home a carpet under any price, but he would not back down. Ultimately this ended with an offer so low, he was insulted and demanded a tip for his “hospitality”. It was worth a euro to pay for his pot of tea and get out of there! We later wandered through an amazing distribution center of Moroccan hand crafted furniture and brightly colored home decoration items. Suzanne called this her version of “torture” - being amongst all these amazingly beautiful pieces without buying anything! Particularly since we had no room in our luggage and no clear idea of what to buy for (as you may know, our house has been on the market all this time and we still don’t know exactly where we will end up after the summer). So she had to suck it up, bite her lip and somehow get through the next several days empty-handed. I must say I could not relate completely to her struggles, but it certainly looked like she was in a lot of pain… One of the most fascinating places was the Jmaa el Fnaa plaza – the central square in Marrakech. As the sun got low in the sky, the square came alive, as the food stalls were set up for grilled meats, stews, sheep’s heads, boiled snails and all sorts of other interesting things. With all the smoke and flames from the grills, the square almost looked on fire every night. In the background, small bands would form in the plaza, playing flutes and drums and people were out everywhere, congregating around fortune tellers and street performers. It was a mesmerizing experience and was a microcosm of the amazing intensity of this country – the sights, sounds, and smells – all at a level that was both exhilarating and overwhelming. Kind of like Vegas without the kitsczh! It seemed at times our kids were in a state of sensory overload and it will be interesting to see what they recall from this trip when they look back.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Morocco – Rockin' the Kasbahs in the land of Ben Hur

We spent the night in a spectacularly renovated Kasbah in the town of Skoura, right in the heart of some of the most spectacular Kasbahs in Morocco. The next morning we stopped at Atlas Movie Studios, where a number of movies have been filmed, such as Gladiator, Kundun, the Jewel of the Nile, and currently a modern remake of Ben Hur, which was being filmed under great secrecy and security. Coming from L.A. (where this is an everyday occurrence), it was somewhat surreal to visit a burgeoning movie industry out here, but the kids really enjoyed walking through the abandoned sets - many of which were falling apart, giving a sense of how crudely they are built. Then we were off to Ait Ben Haddou, one of the most impressive Kasbah villages in the country and a UNESCO world heritage site. Kasbahs are basically military fortresses that have been transferred into family living quarters shared by one or more families. Ait Ben Haddou consists of four such Kasbahs, linked together by an intricate structure of adobe village quarters built into the base of the mountain. It was one of the more stunning and memorable images in all of Morocco and one of the reasons I was so excited to come here. On arrival, however, the winds were blowing something fierce and the kids had little patience for the sand stinging their eyes the minute we got out of the car. Casey started crying immediately and I thought to myself; “uh-oh, this is not going to be good”… but off we went anyway, hoping the winds would die down. We had a guide and the kids seemed to perk up when they learned we had to take a donkey across the river to get there. But that didn’t last long, as the blowing sand literally wore them down. Inside the complex we were protected from the wind and it was enjoyable to get a tour of traditional Moroccan living quarters and kitchens – all with dirt floors and open windows – depicting the simple existence of traditional Moroccan family life. We could see how the adobe was unable to withstand the particularly heavy rains from this winter, as many parts of the walls showed significant signs of water erosion - the adobe surfaces need to be re-finished every 3-4 years, depending on seasonal conditions. As we worked our way to the top of the village, the winds were even stronger and we began a rapid retreat back to the car as the kids were all melting down and crying. Suzanne and I both longed for the relatively carefree and simple days of traveling alone as a couple! We then headed back over the Atlas Mountains into Marrakech, where we would finish out the last three days of our trip, hopefully a bit less “memorable” than our first day. Hammadi dropped us off in town and we said our goodbyes – fondly remembering our experiences in the desert and our time with Hammadi and his family.

Morocco – An Insider’s Perspective of a Moroccan Family

Today, we were fortunate to have Hammadi give us a different perspective of Morocco. First, he took us to his adventure camp, a fairly rural piece of land in M’Hamid owned by his family, which he is in the very early stages of development into a base for adventure travelers. We had tea in his “restaurant”, a large Bedouin-style tent with Berber carpets and pillows and then headed back to Zagoura, where Hammadi’s family lives. His family lives quite well by Moroccan standards – his father was a successful figure in the Moroccan army and owns land in many parts of the country. As is custom here, the parents provide what they can and then their children are expected to take over and bring in income to support the extended family, which can often be quite large. Often, only one or two family members will bring in income to support everyone. Hammadi’s home was located on a quiet side street that looked fairly plain from the outside, but was extremely large and modern on the inside with an unbelievably large number of “sitting rooms” for hosting of guests. Their backyard resembled a small farming complex nestled in a grove of palm trees, with animals, gardens and terraces. We met his sister and many of his cousins and nieces. Per Moroccan custom, we brought “white gifts” for the house - milk, salt, bread and sugar – symbolizing purity and good luck. We were then seated on pillows in one of the main rooms for an amazing couscous lunch - with carrots, onions, eggplant, zuchinni and roasted goat from the backyard. Traditionally when his father is home, the men would eat in a different room from the women. However, since he was away that day, we all ate together in the same room - although Hammadi, his cousin the boys and I ate at a separate table and were served first. It felt strange to be eating while Casey and Suzanne were staring at us hungrily! Hammadi was kind enough to give us utensils for eating, although traditionally, Moroccans eat with their right hand (the left hand is considered unsanitary). His sister showed Suzanne and Casey how to roll balls of couscous, but it seemed quite messy and none of us bothered to try. It was simply a struggle to remember to not touch food with my left hand – particularly since I am left-handed! After a desert of homemade cookies and fresh fruit followed by a mint tea, the women presented Suzanne with a pretty hand-made bracelet and necklace, and Casey exchanged coloring books with Hammadi’s niece, Delel, who is also 5 years old. While at times it was a struggle to communicate given our inability to speak each other’s language, overall it was an amazing gesture of hospitality and gave us unique insight into daily Moroccan family life.

Morocco - Real Men Don't Ride Camels?

Along the way back to M’Hamid, we passed a number of actual Bedouin nomad caravans with their camels. We came to learn that real nomads don’t ride camels – rather they walk alongside them and use the camels to haul their supplies and water from camp to camp. After cleaning the sand as best we could out of our cracks and crevices back at the hotel, we then ventured back out to the local desert on a camel ride – something the kids had been looking forward to this whole trip. Getting up on a camel turned out to be quite a thrill, as the camels would rock forward on their knees and then back on their hind legs, rising up in a herky-jerky fashion that left us all holding on for dear life for fear of being flung forward, as if from a catapult. But once we got going, it was quite smooth and quite a thrill to be so high up off the desert floor. That is, until the winds started picking up the sand from the desert, pelting us like a sandblaster with its microscopic “bullets”. Visibility became limited and it was a struggle to keep our eyes open as clouds of sand dust whipped into our faces. Not even the burkas we had purchased did much good. What started out as a; “Dad, this is the best thing, EVER!”, experience quickly degraded into; “Mommy, my butt hurts, my eyes hurt, my legs hurt and I want off this stupid camel, NOW!”. Under such conditions, an hour was more than enough and we were simply happy to get out of the sandstorm. On reflection, however, this was another great adventure and a much more realistic experience that the nomads have to deal with all the time. It was a good reminder of how hard life is for these people, and how they seem to take everything in stride - I have gained tremendous respect for these hardy people.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Morocco - Deep into the Sahara

That afternoon, our 4X4 was loaded up and we enthusiastically jumped in to head out to the Erg Chigaga dunes. Our enthusiasm lasted all but 5 minutes as reality sunk in that we had a very long two hours ahead of us on extremely bumpy roads. After only 10 minutes, we lost the tracks and had to circle back to town to get our bearings and reestablish the route. It made us appreciate the hard life of the bedouin nomads, who travel for months on end with very little by way of landmarks out in the open desert. The kids were already starting to complain about being tossed around like rag dolls in the back seat. After about 20 minutes, I started to seriously question the wisdom of continuing further. Suzanne was giving me the evil eye and Kellen was starting to feel carsick in the back. Perhaps we should have just opted for the 1 hour camel ride!?! I was just on the verge of asking Hammadi to turn around and cut our losses when the road started to get better and we all started to settle down. As we got closer, things started looking up, as the dunes were even more spectacular than I had envisioned. The tallest dune in Erg Chigaga is over 300 M tall and the dunes seem to run as far as the eye could see. We passed a few tent camps along the way, but overall things were pretty desolate out in the desert. When we finally arrived at our camp, we were shocked to see it was much more than some tents in the sand – there were about 15 adobe structures with thick blankets on top and the camp itself was very comfortable, with a big dining area with berber carpets on the sand and plenty of couches and pillows for lounging around. They even had flush toilets and sinks with running water! It turned out that we were the only guests staying in camp that night and basically had a crew of 5 staff taking care of the 5 of us! The sun was getting low in the sky and bathed everything in a warm, golden light. We wasted no time venturing out to the dunes before dinner. I had my eye set on the tallest one, but it seemed too far away. As we started walking on the dunes, it became challenging to do in shoes, and we all ended up taking off our shoes to let the super fine, warm red sand sift between our toes. The winds which had been blowing all morning stopped in the afternoon, leaving the dunes with an amazingly smooth, untouched texture – which almost resembled a perfect powder day in the mountains (albeit with “red snow”!). For lack of a better term, we were “giddy” with delight running up one dune and tumbling down to the next. Sand was getting everywhere, but nobody seemed to mind. Suzanne and I both agreed that this definitely goes on the list of one of the coolest life experiences we have ever had, and it certainly made up for the rough 4X4 ride. Before we knew it, the largest dune was directly in front of us and we scrambled to the summit and enjoyed the sunset in relative silence, save for the shouting of our 3 kids, awed by the vast expanse of the Sahara stretching out for hundreds of miles around us. We returned to the camp by nightfall, exhausted and extremely satisfied as we enjoyed a bottle of wine and a chicken tangine (okay, I forgave them this time, given our fantastic experience!). Christian promptly fell asleep on the couch and Casey on my lap as the staff started a fire and began singing traditional bedouin songs to the hypnotic beat of drums and empty 10 gallon paint cans. In many ways, I found this to be similar to chants of native American Indians and was mesmerized by the concert. Finally, we could not keep our eyes open any longer, and collapsed in our tent. In spite of our exhaustion and the comfortable setting, it was difficult to sleep, first because of the heat radiating off the desert floor and the absolute silence around us, and later by the sound of sand grains pelting against our tent as the winds picked up in the middle of the night. I finally got up at 5 am to find everything and everyone covered with a super-fine layer of silt. I decided to head back to the dunes to enjoy the sun rising over the Sahara in solitude. It was a magical experience and I found myself overwhelmed with appreciation and awe for being able to experience this and so many other amazing things on this adventure year. Sure, things haven’t always gone as planned and we’ve hit bumps and setbacks along the way, but moments like this make it all worthwhile. I made my way back to camp to find the boys up and running around, so back to the dunes we went, looking for dried up animal bones and tumbling down the dunes yet again. Suzanne and Casey joined us shortly after and we enjoyed playing together before breakfast before our trek back to M’Hamid. The ride home was not nearly as painful as the ride out, perhaps because we were more prepared, but also, because I think Hammadi found a better route out.

Morocco - Southern Edge of the Sahara

Today we had a short drive to M’Hamid, the last village outpost before entering the Sahara desert. Along the way, we stopped in Tamegroute, to tour a library with Arabic manuscripts on the Koran as well as medical and botanical tomes dating back to the 12th century. The kids got a primer on both Arabic and the more ancient Berber alphabets, and had their names transcribed in each language. We also toured a typical Berber community dwelling where the locals produced Moroccan pottery. It was a spectacular maze of almost underground adobe tunnels and houses (to keep cool from the sweltering summer heat). Once again, the simplicity of living conditions, the lack of basic comforts that we often take for granted and the overall hard life that these people live was a good eye opener for all of us – particularly as we headed to off a luxury resort style Riad with all the ammenities. The kids wasted no time playing in the pool while we had a relaxing poolside lunch - and finally, a welcome break from chicken tangines!

Morocco - Over the High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara

After a typical Moroccan breakfast of grilled flatbread, homemade jams and fresh squeezed orange juice (even better than in Valencia!), we met our guide, Hammadi at the hotel from Journey Beyond Travel (JBT). The Andrews had nothing but great things to say about him and JBT, and we were fortunate that he was available. We happily left the dusty, bustling chaos of Marrakech and entered the lush and comparatively tranquil foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. The scenery was magnificent, with fields of bright red poppies and small Berber (the earliest inhabitants of Morocco) villages almost popping out of the green foothills. We wound our way over the Tichka pass at over 2,300 meters and I had visions of riding my bike up here someday; if only they would ban the massive 18-wheel construction trucks that come barreling up and down the pass! Perhaps trekking on foot would be a better option... Far down below, we entered the lush Draa valley with many spectacular Berber villages, which almost appeared to be carved right out the mountainside. These villages were built out of adobe - similar to what you might see in the southwest US, albeit much cruder and simpler. We had a delightful lunch (albeit another chicken tangine) on a terrace overlooking the river and one such village before making our way to the Sahara. We stopped at Ourzazate and picked up some exotic spices for cooking and also tried out some herbal remedies for smooth skin (Suzanne), snoring and headaches (me). We also passed a number of fascinating Kasbahs sitting out like islands in the lusher parts of the valley. We also passed many typical Berber villagers, who seem to live a very simple and hard life, mostly revolving around agriculture and raising animals. After a long day on the road, we arrived that evening at our guest house in Zagora, which sits at the base of an endless sea of palm trees as far as the eye can see. Much to our surprise, we were greeted with yet another chicken tangine (hey, what gives - is that all they eat here?!?) but we enjoyed sitting outside on the terrace while the kids played in the pool. The next day, we woke up refreshed and excited to begin our trek deep into the Sahara.

Friday, May 8, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different - Morocco

So after saying goodbye to our Javea friends, we packed up our stuff and headed to...Morocco. Hey, if we were going to break up the monotony and head out on the open road, this was certainly one way to do it! Our friends, the Andrews had travelled there in February and had such an amazing experience that we arranged a nearly identical trip, albeit with a few more days added on. After a bit of confusion at the Madrid hotel - where we reluctantly and anxiously opted to leave our computer and other valuables in the hotel storage closet - we had a surprisingly easy time getting to Marrakech, which turned out to be only 2 hrs away by plane. Our driver from the Riad (a typical Moroccan guest home) met us and began the seemingly impossible negotiation into the Medina, or old quarter of the city. Even with the luxury of a driver, it was quite a stressful experience, with people sharing equally the narrow roads - from bikes to motorcycles to walkers to big trucks - you name it. Cars were bumping up against bikes and people alike, and everyone seemed to take it all in stride. As we passed the Jema el Fna square, we saw monkeys and king cobras with their handlers. Everything was confusing and chaotic, yet exhilarating. Finally the car could not pass further and we were guided on foot out onto the streets with our bags towards the Riad. We passed through a dark, narrow alley that felt like a cave and passed through a small door no more than 3 feet tall, where we entered a beautiful, peaceful courtyard. We were greeted with sweet mint tea while we lounged on large couches with pillow cushions and were given an orientation to the city. The kids loved the courtyard - particularly the board games and feeding the two resident tortises who seemed to have the run of the place. After dropping off our stuff, we ventured out into the Souks of the Medina - the primary shopping/bartering region which is the ´nerve center´ of Marrakech. This is where things started to go downhill for us. We found ourselves disoriented and out of our element as people were calling us from all over, inviting us into their shops. Before I could practically turn around, Suzanne was off with the kids and they were all getting henna tatoos from two seemingly friendly ladies. ¨How much did you agree to?¨ I asked. Suzanne replied that she never discussed a price. Ouch!...this was not destined to end up very good. Of course, when all was finished they wanted 40 euros for their 90 seconds of “work” – not a very comfortable place to bargain now that services had been exchanged! We refused to pay what they were asking, and they started yelling at us angrily. After giving them more than they deserved, we kept wandering through the souks, albeit a bit flustered. The kids started to melt down, as they were up at 5 am to catch the flight here. We tried to head back for naps but quickly became lost. The locals were only too happy to help…for a fee of course! One man offered to help, only to lead us deep into a back alley in the souks to his store to try to sell us some blankets. Suzanne was getting freaked out about being cut off in a back alley without any people around, the kids were crying and we were clearly flustered. We turned around as fast as we could and found someone else to help us work our way through the maze of narrow crowded streets. We finally made it back to the Riad, only to be haggled with about the size of our tip! Everyone seemed to be trying to get money from us. After a much needed massage and nice full course dinner (with a wonderful lemon chicken tangine and bottle of Moroccan cabernet), things started looking up again. We were very much looking forward to the start of our guided itinerary tomorrow, and I was more than happy to let someone else take the reins for a while. Today certainly fit the bill as a memorable day in the annals of our “adventure” year.