December 9, 2006: Hiking Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre are five small villages along the coast of north-western Italy, built into the cliffs and hills that lead to the ocean. There is a train that accesses each of the towns as well as a hiking trail that weaves in, up, and around the hillsides. So, you can bet which path I preferred!
The hike was phenomenal, providing beautiful views and short stops in a few of the cities. It was a pretty well-worn trail, so much so that the posted warnings advised that women should not don high heels (only in Italy…). Despite that, there were stretches of land where I did not encounter anyone, fortunately. Anyway, the hiking between towns was steep and green, the towns wonderfully quaint. This is one town, Vernazza, as seen before descending down:
Other towns were similarly jumbled and colorful, offering up pizza or fish and delicious espressos. Speaking of which, I have become addicted to them, having probably 4 each day. But then again, when in Italy… In any case, I had to have an espresso at the end of the day, in Monterosso, because the evening lighting was just beautiful:
If anything, it was more colorful and beautiful than these, the lighting more subtle, the glint from the ocean spray more effervescent. In all, a decent good-bye to the coastline.
December 13, 2006: In Roma
The strangest thing about Rome is the juxtaposition of ages, the layering of time like a geological record. Today I walked by the location where Caesar was murdered; it was marked on a placard that first identified the location of an ancient temple’s latrine. And that was it: a simple notation, no fanfare or landmark. All this, of course, while I am eating a Panini and briskly dodging an onslaught of scooters. Renaissance paintings line walls of museums everywhere, as do marble statuettes.
My stop in Rome was due more to convenience to fly to Cyprus than to any deep-seated desire to see classical museums or ancient sculptures. I was duly impressed, of course, and flattened by looking up from the street to find myself peering into the looming structure of the Coliseum. In addition to being impressive artistically, it was humbling, making me and my deeds feel small. Not necessarily unimportant, just helps put things in perspective. What I try to work for during this Fellowship, and throughout my life– this is good but may not be necessary in the broad scheme of history.
Rome is the largest city I’ve entered since traveling abroad on the Fellowship, and Italy’s social policies do little to keep the homeless off the streets. It is disheartening to see beggars. Not simply because I have so much, because many in the city have so much wealth. It also makes me feel uncertain, whether or not to give alms. I certainly could afford it. But would it make their lives better? Would a few coins, or even a few Euros, really help? I have no way of knowing. Sure, donating to a charity would likely help in more structural ways like housing or job training, but how much of that would ever help this old woman on the street? Likely, she would still be there for days, months to come, her old clothes ripped, her teeth blackened. And of course, as I debate the issue, she still sits there, dark eyes looking at me hopefully, leathery hand raised palm upward. I give her a few coins and briskly walk away, troubled at my thoughts, my decisions, and the belief that her life could have very well been my own.
Traveling alone has been difficult. Not because I am carrying everything basically everything I own and need for work – a suit, pressed shirts, and ties; computer, books, and t-shirts – but rather because I have no one with whom I can share experiences, meals, jokes. It is not lonely – not really, at least – but just so different from what I am used to.
Maybe, though, it isn’t all that hard. It is easy to follow my own lead all the time; I feel as though I am developing a stronger sense of what I enjoy and how I react. I can go exactly whenever I please for dinner, embark down alleys as I wish, stop for meditation when the moment suits. Without a traveling companion, I have never been more free. So that freedom runs both ways: I am learning to trust my instincts and listen to my own desires, while missing a notion of how another traveler experiences the same situation (the same visuals, sounds, tastes). I will have two weeks to travel with familiar people soon: for a week with a close friend in Cyprus, and then a week in Morocco with my brother. In addition to the specific places, I am excited to see how sharing an experience while traveling will differ.
December 19, 2006
I am spending a week traveling in Cyprus with a good friend of mine, hoping to take a breather before starting in Uganda in January. It has been a relief to spend time with someone I know from my pre-fellowship life; that being said, I have noticed that I am having some difficulty with making decisions along with someone else and not relying solely on myself. I don’t think this is indicative of anything deeper than what I have been accustomed to over the last few months, though.
We rented a car here and I must say, driving through sharp mountain passes while concentrating on staying on the right – I mean left – side has proven difficult. I’ve done well thus far, though it takes significant concentration. It is amazing how deep-seated all my driving instincts are, from how sharp I am used to making turns to where I look for pedestrians. In some ways, though, this is not so different from getting used to traveling with company: it takes a consistent, conscious redirection of habits, and by doing so I have become aware of habits I never recognized before.
Now I can see how this is a parallel of one of my personal goals for the fellowship year: in order to change my habits, locales, and actions, I must become aware of what I normally do. By traveling for the month of December, I have realized how I normally depend on order and regularity, from knowing where my clothes are located in my drawers (or now, backpack) to knowing the layout of the area surrounding my “home.” It is not to pass judgment and suggest one is better than the other; rather, it is simply interesting to note my dependencies and tastes.
In any case, southern Cyprus itself is beautiful in parts, dirty in some cities, and seems concretized in its position against the separation. There is little talk about the “north” that I can tell except for the occasional piece of anti-Turkish graffiti. The food is great, sporting halloumi, a strange cheese that can be grilled without melting, and endless kefta, lamb meatballs. It is nearly deserted of tourists in the winter, and we seem to be curiosities wherever we go. But it also means we have no problem getting hotels, restaurants, and finding attractions wide open. Hiking was a treat because of this: beautiful views and weather without anyone else around. Just great! Here is a view on the hike around Mount Olympus:
And, as has been the case wherever I have been, the sunsets are gorgeous:
December 25, 2006: The Cairo Airport
Sleeping in airports is supposed to be fun, an adventure, an interesting break in a normal routine. But when you’re carrying almost everything you own, and you’re sleeping in the Cairo airport, vigilance takes precedent over sleep. At least it did for me.
As my flight arrived late this evening and I depart for Casablanca tomorrow morning, I can’t say I really had a choice. I think this is one of those experiences that I will be glad about later, will tell as a funny story when I can laugh about it. At least, I’m certainly hoping so, right now.
I think it’s also worth noting that this would be a difficult situation anywhere; however, trying to communicate my intentions to the night staff in Arabic has proven, well, a challenge. After taking some months off from intense Arabic lessons, it is strange to be fully immersed in the language. Moreover, the Egyptian dialect is complicated – the “J” is pronounced as a hard “G”; the “Q” is simply not vocalized – so I’m at the mercy of the staff here. Hope a smile and numerous “thanks!” can hold for the night.
December 27, 2006: Making friends in Rabat
They say Morocco has four capitals: Rabat is the governmental capital; Casablanca the financial; Fes the artisanal; Marrakesh the tourist. We’ll visit them all.
Despite being the seat of the parliament and numerous ministries, Rabat is quiet. Its streets are lined with cafes – my brother continues to note the “Parisian” atmosphere – which are mainly populated by middle-aged, mustachioed men. It is sunny and warm for us non-Africans; the Moroccans are in scarves and jackets. My brother and I verbally deny the requests for tour guides – apparently everyone here has a cousin who is a guide – and, by wearing sneakers, physically deny the shoe polishers. Despite getting strange looks (“What are tourists doing here in December?!”), we seem to be getting along with my basic Arabic and our extremely broken French. Again, an apologetic smile and thanks seem to go a long way. As does a little extra on the tip.
After exploring the old city (medina) and the old castle walls (casbah), we ran into a Moroccan student, Hassan. Or at least he purported to be one; every local seems to be conning us; every foreigner tells us not to trust the locals. It makes for a difficult situation, especially when we want to trust the kindness of strangers while also staying safe. In any case, we had a wonderful day touring a multi-century-old mosque and the burial site of one of the kings.
Unfortunately, we had to turn down Hassan’s offer for dinner at his parents’ house. They lived “a few towns over,” which seemed to trigger a warning for my brother and I. I would have loved to go to their house for dinner, though! This is the quandary I have faced before and am sure I will face again: where is the line between expanding my horizons and just being unnecessarily dangerous? Certain emotional and psychological barriers are easier to be risky with, I think, because physical risks seem to hold greater opportunity for permanent harm. In any case, I don’t fully regret not going to Hassan’s house, though I do hope I recognize opportunities to be risky without being idiotic.
One other interesting anecdote: the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is being celebrated right now. The holiday culminates with Eid al-Adha which commemorates the near-sacrifice by Abraham of his son, Ishmael (note: though similar to the Old Testament version, the Islamic tradition holds that Ishmael, not Isaac, is nearly sacrificed). In order to celebrate it, families ritually sacrifice a ram to parallel the story’s ultimate victim. This means, of course, that the skinny, crowded streets in the medina were constantly interrupted with young men wheeling carts of live rams. It amazes me how quickly they moved, the crowds parting and combining in their wake seamlessly. And, as this is tradition, nobody batted an eye at the sight of live sheep being led – occasionally, dragged by the horns – through their streets.
December 28, 2006: The Longest Day
This was, perhaps, the most haphazard and intense day of my life. It led my brother and me through a maze of new situations, both exciting and terrible. Part of the Fellowship is “multi-layering”; I never thought I’d have a single day with quite so many disconnected experiences. But hey, that’s Morocco.
Following a brief breakfast – one where our waiter had to go down the block to retrieve the croissants we ordered off the menu – my brother and I ran down to the ocean. Apparently, the King of Morocco was pressured by one of his jet-ski buddies to build a surf school; as California boys, my brother and I could not resist! Trying to negotiate a price and lockers required a mix of four languages (Arabic, English, French, and Spanish), none of which provided a match of fluency on both sides. From a negotiator’s standpoint, it was an interesting situation! In any case, surfing was amazing, riding waves into the scenery of a centuries’ old walled city with minarets piercing the sky. All while trying to understand the Arabic/French/English instructions from our teacher – it was a blast.
Following our lessons, we worked our way back through the old city, the medina, in hopes of finding a quick lunch and snacks. The medina was a maze of convoluted streets, lined with vendors hawking everything from t-shirts to fresh meat. Each vendor worked hard for every customer, the number of languages used only slightly outnumbering the number of people who passed. The colors, the smells, the sights were amazing, and the fresh fruit was incredible:
We thought this was enough for the day and were ready to settle in on a three-hour train ride to Fes. Little did we know, however, that our day was just beginning. Train schedules in Morocco, it turns out, exist mainly for show. You know a train is “scheduled” to arrive on the paper; you apparently also know that the physical train will arrive whenever it so happens.
Nearly two hours late, the train arrived, windows bulging with its passengers. Tickets seem to exist in the same dimension as schedules, one where they don’t so much matter. Which is why our train must have been at 250% capacity. Sensing we were not going to make it to Fes, my brother and I grabbed all our belongings and followed half a dozen Moroccan teenagers around the back of the train and across the tracks, then ran up the whole length of the train searching for any door that did not have people already hanging out of it. Eventually, the final door was opened for us and we were delivered onto the train by the outstretched hands of our fellow passengers.
As we settled into the space, we realized there were no seats available. In fact, there were no seats. No windows save those on the doors, and no signs inside. Along with a handful of Moroccan riders, we shared the intimate space with boxes, luggage, and a motorcycle, as well as a single door that led into the engine room (the door itself, which would not close fully, leaked oil onto the floor for the duration of the trip). The baggage/engine car cum standing-room-only passenger space was to be our location for the duration of the trip, one which would eventually take nearly twice as long as the “scheduled” time.
As more riders packed in at each stop, we eventually traveled with over 25 people (and their luggage) in an area less than eight square meters. After each stop, we shuffled to make room for the few women to sit on their bags, strained our noses to the cracks in the door for fresh air, and purchased extra shoulder space from our neighbors through biscuit bribes. Though everyone was tired, there was certainly some recognition of a common hardship as we tried to mitigate our collective discomfort.
Our arrival, well over four hours after boarding, provided us with insatiable relief: we had survived a packed Moroccan train on the day before Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday. Fortunately, the rest of the evening was pleasant with mercifully warm showers, delicious platters of traditional Moroccan foods, and sweet maghrebi mint tea to finish the meal.
Even though parts of the day were just terrible, I realized that I missed these sorts of wild experiences, the type that can only come by breaking routine and pushing onward for new and different scenery. As we descend into another new city, I find myself exuberantly expectant of what tomorrow will bring.