Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Portugal -> Spain -> Morocco

I've been putting off this blog post all week because there's so much to cover, but now it's time to face my fears and bust it out. In short, my 10-day, 4-country, 2-continent adventure was absolutely, positively off the hook.

It began Wednesday, March 3, with a train ride from Bologna to Milan. From there I caught the airport shuttle to Milano Malpensa and then my plane to Porto, Portugal. We touched down around 6pm, but by the time I made it to my hostel in the historic center the sun had already set. Fortunately the Avenida dos Aliados in Porto is entirely lit up at night, so I was able to admire a bunch of churches and statues and fountains as I walked to the Rivoli Cinema Hostel, where I would eventually rest my weary head. This hostel was really unique; every room was decorated in the style of a different film director- I was in "Kubrick" (which was much better for sleeping than "M. Night Shyamalan"). When I arrived, I spoke to the receptionist only in Portuguese. She explained everything about the hostel and answered my questions about local cuisine. I told her I wanted to try a francesinha, Porto's famous plate of bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage and steak, covered with an egg, molten cheese, a spicy thick tomato and beer sauce and served with french fries. In describing the dish her mouth started watering and she decided she needed one too, so we grabbed two other hostel guests, she asked another worker to cover for ten minutes, and we made our way to a nearby restaurant. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with the German guy and Korean girl who were walking with us, and when the receptionist heard me say in English that I was from California, she stopped and asked, "Wait, you're not Brazilian?" Ahh how I LOVE that... After our deliciously unhealthy dinner I wandered along the Douro River with Markus and Eumie for a bit, taking pictures of the Luis I bridge and Porto's famous wine cellars. We hit the sack around 2am, and five hours later I was up and out again, exploring as much of the city as I could before my train to Lisbon left at 11am. Among the morning highlights was the pond in the Cordoaria garden and the Lello bookstore, which is ranked third-most beautiful in the world and boasts a true stairway from heaven.

The train to Lisbon was quick and comfortable, and the fact that blue skies were defying the rainy forecast for the second day in a row was like icing on the cake. When I arrived at the Santa Apolónia train station I used a payphone to call my friend Duarte, a Portuguese exchange student I met in Rio whose permanent home is Lisbon. We were supposed to meet up and hang out that afternoon, but he had a family emergency and had to leave for a nearby city. Instead I ended up doing some more exploration on my own, which fortunately doesn't bother me in the least. Highlights were the intricate azulejo tiles in the São Vicente de Fora church, the 25 de Abril Bridge across the Tejo River (Lisbon's "Golden Gate"), and the Parque das Nações near the Oriente train station. Unfortunately my exploration in the city center was cut short because I was worried about the transport offices closing before I could buy my bus ticket to Sevilla for that night; luckily the Vasco da Gama shopping mall next to the bus depot offered plenty of distractions while I waited two hours for my departure. I left Portugal having already decided that I would return. Despite all the trash talking I heard from Brazilians about their colonizers, empirical knowledge is a better indicator of a nation's worth.

The night bus dropped me off at the Prado de San Sebastian station in Sevilla around 4:30am the next morning. It was dark and freezing cold, I was exhausted and hungry, and the seats in the station waiting room could not have been more uncomfortable as I counted down the hours until the sun came up and I could venture out in search of my hostel. Eventually the sun rose (and with it my spirits), and I made my way to the Garden Backpacker Hostel, where I was thrilled to find my reserved bed empty and the receptionist kind enough to let me sleep in it before check-in. I slept for two hours, devoured the complimentary breakfast, completed my check-in and got on the hostel computer to try and contact my friend Quinn, a former Montgomery Viking and current Oregon Duck who is studying abroad in Sevilla. After some difficulties, we found each other and set off wandering through the city. I loved being back in a Spanish-speaking country, and as we were walking it hit me how cool it is that I've learned three foreign languages and thus obtained the ability to communicate in over 35 countries, each with its own culture and customs (not to mention the 50+ countries in which English is an official language!). Quinn showed me La Catedral de Sevilla- the largest Gothic church in the world- and then the unbelievable Plaza de España and the Torre del Oro along the Guadalquivir River. We ate tapas and watched live flamenco after a scrumptious/cheap pasta dinner in my hostel, and shortly after midnight we said adios and went our separate ways. I slept six long hours and caught my 7am bus to Algeciras, where I would take the ferry to Tangier and begin my African expedition. I could not have asked for a better 26 hours in Sevilla, despite the clouds and brisk temperatures.

Algeciras was supposed to mean nothing on my trip. It was just the tiny Spanish port city I had to pass through to get to Morocco. Instead it turned into another highlight because there I got to meet up with my Harvard friend Cat, a professional tennis player and one of my favorite people on the planet. I'm not describing three different people, by the way. She wrote me a Facebook message when I was in Sevilla asking when I would pass through Algeciras- as it turned out, she was training in Marbella, a nearby Spanish city. She asked her coach for a half-day off and took the 1.5-hour bus ride just to sit in the Algeciras bus station and hang out with me for a few hours! I felt so special that she made that kind of effort on my behalf and I was truly thrilled to see her. We drank some coffee and ate the Italian cookies I had brought with me from Bologna as snacks, we talked about life, of our blessings and strife, and we left. She caught the 2pm bus back to Marbella and I made my way to the port, hoping to get on the 3pm ferry to Tangier. Rain was pouring down in Algeciras, and the four ferries before 3pm had been cancelled due to rough waters. I bought my ticket and made it through security in time, but then ended up waiting nearly three hours outside on the gangway with the hundreds of other passengers. We finally left the port around 6pm, and we didn't set foot in Morocco until 9pm. The "one-hour trip" took six, and it wasn't smooth sailing but rather like a scene out of The Perfect Storm. Here's what I wrote in my journal as we crossed: "Surreal ferry ride going on right now! New age flamenco/oriental music playing on the speakers as we rise and fall on huge waves. The water's really rough because of all the rain. As the last song hit its crescendo, we hit a monster wave and most of the glasses and plates on the bar smashed to the ground, chairs toppled over, people's luggage slid away. On everyone's face right now is either audacious excitement or sheer terror- I'm just a little seasick." I thanked God when we made it across safely, as did most of the other travelers, each in his own language. Getting from the Tangier port to my hotel was another adventure, almost equally stressful. As I left the boat there were dozens of Moroccans asking me if I needed a taxi, a hotel, an escort, etc. You learn as a traveler that the big backpack attracts these types of people no matter where you are. I pretended I didn't speak English and instead responded to their questions only in Spanish, telling them that I was from Mexico. You also learn as a traveler that hustlers don't automatically assume you're filthy rich if you can't speak English and aren't from the USA. Regardless, I couldn't speak Arabic and ended up paying a weed-smoking, cross-eyed cab driver 50 dirham for a ride to my hostel, which I thought was a rip-off and later discovered was around five times the actual price. In that kind of situation you sometimes just have to bite the bullet and pay the $7. By 10pm I was in my single hotel room and fast asleep, not a huge fan of Africa but determined to give it another chance in the morning.

The next morning in Tangier was spectacular. I was in heaven walking along the water from my hotel to the Old City, watching kids play soccer in the sand and girls in burkas jog along the sidewalk. The clouds had cleared and I was totally at peace. I bought my first-ever caramel crêpe for breakfast, which came with fresh-squeezed Moroccan orange juice that rivaled that of both Florida and California, and took lots of pictures of mosques and Médina gates. My favorite part of Tangier was an ocean panorama from outside the Kasbah museum, high up in the ancient city and overlooking the port. The water was shining turquoise, as if emitting light from beneath the surface. I took a bunch of photos, but they didn't capture the vibrancy of the scene. At least it's engrained in my memory.

I caught an afternoon bus to Casablanca, thinking for some reason that it was a two-hour ride and instead discovering it was more like five. No problem though, I was content writing in my journal and staring out at the countryside, listening to Brazilian samba and not worrying about anything at all. I arrived in Casablanca around 9pm and managed to walk to my hotel without much difficulty. I could instantly tell that it was less tourist-infested than Tangier. Nobody hassled me and for that I was grateful. The receptionist let me directly into the room my high school friend Alex had reserved for me, which was a blessing. I meant to wait up for her and her two study abroad friends from Lyon, but their plane was delayed in France and I ended up falling asleep around 11:30pm. At midnight I awoke to jangling keys and a big hug from Alex, which was way better than an alarm. I met her friends Caroline, a blonde Swedish bombshell, and Orlando, a Brazilian who coincidentally studies at PUC-Rio, the exact same school I attended last semester! He even lives in Leblon, which means we were both neighbors and classmates for six months last year. It's a small world, I can't say it enough...

We slept well that night, ate a healthy complimentary breakfast of bread, orange juice and Morocco's famous mint tea, and caught a morning train south to Marrakech. I knew I would like Marrakech better than Tangier and Casablanca from the moment I stepped off the train. Lots of elderly tourists, which is reassuring in a country where I don't speak any of the official languages, and a nice mix of cultural modernity and tradition, as in McDonald's and snake charmers on the same street. I ate well in Marrakech for pretty cheap- lots of couscous, olives, tajine and Arabic Coca-Cola. Again it was supposed to rain, and instead we were met with African sunshine that was strong enough to burn us all, even in early March. I loved the craziness of Jama‘a el-Fnaa square, where we had to constantly be aware of Moroccans with monkeys on leashes, old henna artists, snake charmers and street acrobats. One careless step could mean an accidental kick in the face or an unwanted serpent around our necks- they thought it was funny and we thought it was terrifying. Jardin Majorelle, a garden owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, was an unexpected oasis near our hostel that proved perfect for pretty pictures. At night we chilled on the rooftop with international hostel mates, sharing travel stories in whatever languages we could. I got to speak some Portuguese to a group of Paulistas who are currently studying in Spain and some English to a very wise Israeli. After two nights in the city, all of us gave Marrakech a wholehearted two thumbs up. It offered vibrant Moroccan culture in an environment noticeably safer than Tangier or Casablanca, and we really couldn't ask for more.

We went back to Casablanca by train that Wednesday evening, March 10, arriving pretty late and starving. As a big group of international students (Alex's group was huge, but we were three different small groups traveling independently), we searched Casablanca until we came upon a restaurant that drew us in with neon lights and casino carpeting. I had a weird feeling when I entered, and Orlando and I commented that it reminded us of the recently closed HELP discothèque in Rio, long infamous for prostitution. We soon realized that our intuition was spot on. We were the only guests actually eating in the restaurant; the others were all heavily made-up and scantily clad Moroccan women scattered alone at empty tables, staring at the guys in our group and occasionally licking their lips when they caught our eyes. I thought it was funny that the majority of our group didn't notice the type of establishment we were in; I wasn't at all surprised to hear them complaining about the low quality of the food. The next morning was our last day together in Morocco and we spent it at Casablanca's Hassan II Mosque, a spectacular building and the third-largest of its kind in the world. We took lots of pictures in front of the ocean, in front of the mosque, and jumping around acting silly. For me the mosque was Casablanca's only redeeming value; perhaps I'm harsh, but I'm just telling it like it is. We ate our final meal together at a fantastic Italian restaurant (ironically I left Italy to eat pizza...) and then said our goodbyes. Alex and crew returned to Lyon that night by plane, and I moved to a nearby hostel since I was leaving in the morning. I didn't do anything but sleep and write in my journal after my friends left- it had been nine straight days of intense traveling.

Friday morning I caught my plane with no difficulties and made it back to Milan, where I took the airport shuttle to the central train station and then the train down to Bologna. I arrived "home" around 8:30pm after grabbing a kebab to go, chatted a little with my roommates and fell asleep for ten straight hours. This week has been nice and relaxed- I played a lot of soccer, spent a lot of time with friends, studied and dominated my first test in Portuguese literature, and returned to my diet of pasta and pasta, occasionally with pasta on the side.

In six hours I'm catching the train back to Milan, where I'll take the same airport shuttle to the same airport and check in at the same terminal. This time, however, I'm not flying to Porto but rather Athens, Greece. I'll spend some time in the Mediterranean with a Harvard friend and then together we'll explore Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. From Vienna I'll head off on my own, meeting up with Christian and his friends in the Czech Republic, some Polish friends in Warsaw, and then finishing my journey alone and exhausted in Germany. I fly back to Italy three weeks from today, and then it will be time to buckle down and start studying.

Maybe. Until then, peace be da journey. I'm out.

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