Monday, July 2, 2012

Marrakesh, Morocco

4 June 2012

It was a real struggle to get up this morning in order to see the sunrise in the desert. This was due to a number of factors--staying up late, but also the peacefulness of the desert. In South Dakota, it's pretty easy to go out into the wilderness and be the only person for miles. However, it's never quiet. There's always the noise of crickets, birds, and leaves rustling. In the desert, it was completely silent, and I slept like a baby. It didn't help that the first alarm that we set to wake us up either didn't go off or someone immediately shut it off.
 Thankfully, as the sun was just getting ready to peek over the mountains, I woke up again and got up in time to watch the sunrise--truly one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. The peace and beauty of the desert left me feeling rejuvenated....
 Which lasted until we had to get back on the camels to head to Zagora. Let me just say that riding a camel the second day was shear agony. Every movement of the camel hurt my already sore body. Eventually, I just felt numb.

Back in Zagora, we stopped a shop to look at Berber carpets. They were extremely beautiful. I wanted to buy one, but had neither the money nor the space (or home!) for such a thing.
 We continued our journey back to Marrakesh--stopping to enjoy the views as well as the city of Ouarzazate. Like Ait-Ben-Haddou, it's been used as an international movie studio for movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, Daughter of the Nile, and Babel. The picture above is the kabash--fortifications.
 After a long day of traveling, we made it back to the city of Marrakesh, and promptly ran into some people that we know! We knew that some friends of ours were going to be in Marrakesh, but we didn't expect to run into them on the streets. Later, we met up with them to eat at a restaurant near the central plaza. I wasn't really hungry so I ate a soup called harira--a tomato and lentil soup.
Eventually, we headed back to the hostel and hung out with our friends and the new friends we made at the hostel. It was an interesting group of people--from Germany, the US, and Australia! Every had cool stories to share about their experiences traveling the world!

Desert Dunes

3 June 2012

This morning dawned bright and early. To be honest, too bright and early for me! I find it difficult enough to get up at 8 AM each morning for school--so 7 AM was a bit of a struggle.

However, it was well worth it! A lovely breakfast was made fresh for us by one of the guys that works at the riad. We had little pancakes that were a spongier form of crepes, and a thicker pancake that reminded me of frybread from my home state, South Dakota. We also had freshly squeezed orange juice!

Before arriving in Morocco, we found a company that would take us out to the desert (on camels) to see the sunrise over the dunes. This morning, our Berber guide picked us up from our riad to begin our two-day trip to and from the desert. Our guide, Kamal, was extremely nice and knowledgeable. Since we had a private guide, we were able to ask questions about basically everything from the Berber nomadic lifestyle to the educational system in Morocco (a particular interest of mine) and from Morocco's climate to its history. We wouldn't have had this same opportunity if we'd gone on a generic large group tour.

As I've mentioned an interest of mine is the educational systems in different countries. Many of the people I'd spoken to in Morocco (so far) spoke excellent English. Some admitted that they were self-taught, but I was curious what the system is like in Morocco. In Spain, students can go to school starting at age 3--though it isn't obligatory until age 6. In Morocco, students start school at age 7. There are even some schools (sort of like boarding schools) where students who live in more remote areas live while attending school. Moroccan children start by learning French and Arabic and when they are older (around 14 years old) they start learning English. This really surprised me because it can be more difficult to become fluent in a language at that age.
We spent approximately 7 hours riding in a car out to Zagora. Of course, we stopped periodically to take in the amazing views and learn more about Morocco. One of the places we stopped was a women's cooperative where they sell products with Argan oil. This oil comes from a plant native to Morocco and is known for it's medicinal and beauty properties. We saw how the women take the pits (that goats don't eat) and crush them in order to release the oil. The oil is combined to make different kinds of spreads--one of which tastes like peanut butter. It's also used in beauty products--like soaps and chapsticks.

Here is a Berber village. Approximately 40% of Moroccans are Berber--though more probably have Berber ancestry. Berbers have traditionally been a nomadic people. They tend to herd animals--with the women using the wool from the animals to make products like Berber carpets.
This is the ancient city of Ait-Ben-Haddou. Historically, it was an important stopping point for caravans--especially considering it took 52 days on camel to reach Timbuktu. More contemporarily, many movies have been shot here--such as The Mummy, Prince of Persia, Kingdom of Heaven, basically any movie with a desert setting.
Another beautiful view in the High and Little Atlas Mountains...
Later, we reached Zagora--where we would be taking camels into the desert. Riding the camels definitely added something to the experience--although I started to get uncomfortable 5 minutes into the journey. This just goes to tell you that I wouldn't have made it during the 52 day camel journey to Timbuktu.

The ride to the desert camp at sunset was breathtakingly beautiful--though the picture below maybe isn't the best representation of that. It's quite difficult to take pictures from a camel.
At the camp, we met two fellow travelers and our guides in the camp. For dinner, they made us an amazing tajine. After all that we had to eat that day, I had hardly any room for any more food!

Then, we took turns playing drums and other musical instruments. My "theory"was that our terrible playing was meant to scare away wild animals.
All too soon, I decided to go to bed in order to get a couple hours sleep before waking up at 5 AM to see the sunrise!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bucket List: visit Morocco. Check!

2 June 2012

Throughout this year that I've lived in Spain, I've had the opportunity to travel to a lot of amazing cities throughout Europe. Each one has had something that made it unique. However, European cities are all basically built the same. Each city has a main plaza, a central cathedral, a castle/palace, a large park, etc. I love seeing palaces/castles as much as the next--especially since there is a dearth of castles in the United States--but I've become tired of seeing the same thing everywhere I go.

As I've traveled throughout Spain, I've seen many examples of Islamic-influenced architecture and art in cities like Granada, Sevilla, Zaragoza, Córdoba, and I've found it all fascinatingly beautiful. I've been interested in traveling to northern Africa in order to see how the original compares to how this style has manifested in Spain. 

This morning, I caught the bus to Valencia, met up with some American friends at the airport, and flew to Marrakesh, Morocco. 

After a slightly harrowing flight, we were met at the airport by a taxi driver who took us to our riad. A riad is a combination between a bed and breakfast and a hostel. They are usually pretty small. 

Our riad was located inside the medina--the historical part of the city. We were glad that we took the taxi since finding anything in the medina (at least the first time) can be extremely confusing. 

In no time, we were graciously ushered into the riad and offered tea on the rooftop terrace. In Morocco, hospitality is extremely important. It's customary to offer guests tea, and it's considered rude to refuse such an offer. 

On the terrace, we met 6 of the riads "pets." Six turtles wander aimlessly around the terrace--taking shelter during the worst of the heat and sniffing (?) and climbing over guests' feet the rest of the day. 

As we enjoyed our tea, we also took in the view our terrace had to offer. The roof had an amazing view of the rest of the medina. We could see into the souks and the mosque in the distance.

After settling down a little, we decided to leave the riad to find a place to eat dinner and explore the city a little more.

Our first stop was the souks--the open-air market located in the center of the medina. In the souks, people haggle for clothing, spices, food, and other items. A couple of my friends stopped and haggled for lighter clothing that will be more appropriate for our ride into the desert tomorrow.

Next, we walked into the main square--which was full of activity! There were vendors selling food and fresh orange juice. There were performers with monkeys and snakes. Once the sunset, there were also circles of people playing music.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant recommended by the man in our hostel. I had chicken couscous--which was pretty delicious. Later, we returned to the hostel in order to get some sleep before leaving at 7:30 AM to travel to the desert!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

End of the Year Lunch!

1 June 2012

Since today is the 1st of June, the school day has officially become shorter! Instead of having class from 9 AM to 12:30 PM and 3:30 PM to 5 PM, we now just have classes from 9 AM to 1 PM. The Comunidad Valenciana  is the only community in all of Spain to have this odd schedule change. However, the director at my school is hoping that this will change next year, and they'll have the same, continuous schedule all year. 

In order to take advantage of the shorter school day, we had the teacher's end of the year lunch. As always, it was really fun to get together with all of the teachers to eat delicious food!

Of course, one of the main topics of conversation was the upcoming Hogueras (Fogueres in Valencian) which is the holiday celebrated for the feast day of Saint John.

I mentioned to a small group of teachers that I have a secret dream of wearing one of the traditional dresses that girls wear for this holiday. It's been my shameful secret all year since I saw one of these dresses at the Hogueras museum. I just love the skirts on the dresses--they're like bells that sway back and forth!

News travels quick. Not even two minutes after I had said this, another teacher from across the room approached me and was telling me how they were going to make this happen for me. I guess the idea of the americana in the traditional alicantina dress was something everyone wanted to see.

Over the course of the lunch, this became the inside joke.

One teacher told me that in order to wear the alicantina dress I was going to have to master a few skills. First, she asked if I had the wave down--so I showed her my best princess/Barbie wave. Then, she asked about my hips movement. I assured her that I could swing my hips and twirl the skirt of the dress to make it look like a bell. Lastly, she asked me if I knew the art of using a fan. Shamefully, I had to admit I didn't know how to use a fan and another teacher was "enlisted" to instruct me.

I'm not sure if I'll actually get the opportunity to wear one of these dresses, but I know that the teachers are doing their best to make that dream happen!


31 May 2012

There is still (at least) one controversial topic that I haven't yet written about in my blog--bullfighting.

It's been a prevalent topic in the news in the last week because a famous bullfighter, Julio Aparicio, rectnly retired from bullfighting. Two years ago, he was gored by a bull during a bullfight. Apparently, Aparicio slipped, and as he fell, the bull's horn pierced his throat. The bullfighter was rushed to the hospital, and doctors did their best to save him. The reconstruction surgery went well, and Aparicio was able to fight again. In fact, he fought again just 10 weeks after the accident.

Two days ago, after a bad fight, Aparicio asked one of his fellow toreros to cut his ponytail/braid in order to mark the end of his career as a torero.

Particularly in recent years, tauromaquia (the art of bullfighting) has become more and more controversial in Spain. This sometimes surprises people because when they think of Spain they stereotypically think of flamenco and bullfighting. But contrary to what outsiders might believe, the average Spaniard isn't a fan of bullfighting. 

I've talked to a number of Spaniards about the topic. The general consensus I've heard is pretty neutral. They appreciate the historical value that the tradition of bullfighting has in Spain. They can also see the beauty and art in the way that toreros fight. However, they also recognize that it is a cruel and violent sport in which the bull basically doesn't have a chance.  

Historically-speaking, bullfighting has always been more popular in the south than in the north of Spain. This is evidenced by the fact that bullfighting was actually outlawed in the community of Catalonia a few years ago. While I was in Barcelona in December, I saw that the bullfighting ring in the center of the city has since been turned into a shopping center.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


30 May 2012

Today, with my 6th grade classes, we played a game that I'm temporarily calling "Famous!" I don't really like the name, and I'm hoping I'll think of something a little catchier soon!

For this game, I wrote down a list of famous people on a sheet of paper. I tried to write down a variety of people as well as names of people that the kids would know. I picked actors/actresses, sports players, politicians (like Obama), inventors, scientists, singers, etc. I cut the names out into individual slips or paper.

I divided the class into two teams. One person from each team had to go to the board to write. I read the name of the famous person, and they had to write a sentence saying why the person is famous--using the past tense.

I reviewed all sorts of verbs with them before playing. However, we mostly ended up with "He was a famous ______." So I think next time I'll make a rule that they can't repeat verbs.

There were also people that I took for granted that the kids would know (or would know based on my American pronunciation) like Charles Dickens, Thomas Edison, Mozart.

The economic crisis in Alicante

29 May 2012

I've written various posts about "la crisis" (the crisis) here in Spain. The conservative government led by Rajoy is making cuts across the board in order to bring Spain out of the economic crisis.

However, I haven't written as much about the cuts being made here in Alicante and the Comunidad Valenciana. The government in Alicante has been doing everything possible to save money--some of these measures are a little strange.

A few months ago, the government announced that they were going to shut down fountains throughout the city as a way to save money. All the fountains in the city are only allowed to be on for one hour each day. So if you see a fountain running, it's your lucky day. This has been sad for me because there is a lovely fountain around the block from my apartment that I never see running anymore. Though I haven't read any figures about how much this is saving the government, I suppose shutting down fountains is better than firing someone--especially since Spain has the highest unemployment rate in Europe.

More recently, a second measure has been put in place--shutting down unnecessary traffic lights. I'm not sure how the government decided which traffic lights are unnecessary, but they've shut down a number of traffic lights (on one way streets) near where I live. The traffic light in front of my school was shut down for a number of days--though I'm not a 100% sure if it was due to this measure or just broken. Thankfully, there is usually a policeman around to direct traffic before and after school, but it was still alarming to think that there wasn't a traffic light working in a student zone.