Monday, January 16, 2012

Three Kings Day (Dia de los Reyes Magos)

"On January 5th, Spain celebrates the end of Christmas with a great party where everybody gives and receives presents. It is to celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Men (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar) to the city where Jesus was born. In the same way that the Three Wise Men gave gifts to baby Christ, here they share out presents amongst children around Spain. In fact, they are more popular than Santa Claus."

We celebrated by attending the local parade in downtown Granada which was quite a spectacle complete with elaborate floats, fireworks and lots of kids throwing candy (which of course the boys loved). Am attaching a few video clips to give you an idea of the action. That is Clark and friends working it with the upside down umbrella (a tip we picked up from the locals).

Afterwards we were invited for dinner at a Spanish neighbors house where we enjoyed traditional dishes and an evening all in Spanish (good for practice but we're certainly not there yet with total understanding).

Space Noodles!!
 The next morning (Jan 6) we finally celebrated Christmas, having been in Morocco over the holidays. Thanks to our good friends back home, we had some fun gifts to open including a new bear for Colin, pasta shaped like the Space Needle (Clark's favorite) and a few other goodies.

Wearing new tie-dye t-shirts
from the cousins in Seattle
We then decided to take  a "Three Kings" bike ride to nearby Sacramonte to take the boys to see an abandoned monestary that isn't too far away. For some reason the route was extremely muddy that day which made for a challenging ride but the weather was sunny and warm and we enjoyed being outside.

Stuck in the mud
Three Kings bike ride


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Travels in Morocco

Clark holding a 5 day old baby goat
Slippers for sale in Fez
INTENSE is the best word to describe our travels throughout Morocco these past 11 days. It was truly a whirwind tour of a fascinating country full of diversity and extremes. We really packed it in, travelling 1800 kilometers by bus, taxi, ferry, minivan, camel, train and on foot, from the northern city of Tangier all the way to the beaches of Essaouria on the Atlantic coast, with many interesting encounters in between. There were many highs and lows, like playing circle tag on a windsurfing beach with local Moroccan teenagers and hours later driving by a recent highway accident where a woman in arabic clothing lie lifeless in the road, belongings strewn all around.

Much needed break from the van
(we could be in Ireland!)
Nat in one of the 7 gates in Fez
The kids were troopers, putting up with moving almost every day and hours upon hours of travelling by van (the boys listened to many, many books on their ipods). We saw so many things and experienced so much it will take quite a while to process it all. So many new and different sights, sounds, smells, flavors, colors, vantages and experiences, certainly not all pretty. Our "guide" turned out to be much more of a driver than an actual guide (I don't think he liked tourists) but the locations he led us to were beyond spectacular: sunset over the Sahara dunes, camping by starlight in the middle of the desert, hiking through gorges and canyons, visiting brilliant blue towns and seeing fascinating things in the medinas and souks of Fez and Marrakesh. Too many tours, not enough time in each place, but at least we got a taste of many of the different parts of the country and the diversity of the landscape, architecture and people. I'm happy to be home but can't wait to go back.

A few moments stand out: like when I gave a 2 dirham coin (~25 cents) to a woman begging on the street and she kissed my hand in return (so I kissed her cheek), seeing the extreme poverty of the big cities as well as small towns, enjoying a sunset over the remote desert, camping in the Sahara, finding the best Moroccan food in the country in the souks of Marrakesh - we quickly discovered that the less the price, the better the food, and that sticking with the local cuisine was much wiser than trying "tourist" food. 

The doorway to our Riad

Overlooking Chefchaoen
We spent the first night in the mountain village of Chefchaoen after travelling for over 10 hours to get there. Arriving in the evening to our beautiful Riad, we put the kids to bed (Colin fell sleep immediately) and went across the street to bring back some food for dinner, our first tangine which was delicious. The next morning we woke up to a bright sunny day alighting the beautiful blue-tinged buildings with the cloud cover rolling in. We had a quick stroll around the city before loading up to move on to our next destination, Fez.

Christmas shopping in Fez
Camel head for sale in the souks

Christmas Eve in Fez was spent at a local restaurant where the kids ordered spaghetti (!) and adults tangines and kebabs. On Christmas day we toured the amazing souks of Fez including a tannery, ceramics shop, fabric store and many sights, sounds and smells of local markets too numerous to mention. One could buy anything there, from camel heads to zapatos (shoes). We returned to our very comfortable and centrally located Riad (hotel) for tea and relaxation.

Kids play with rocks in the black desert
Our hotel was an oasis in the middle
 of nowhere
The next stop on our itinerary was the small village of Merzhouga on the edge of the Sahara desert where we happened upon an oasis of a hotel in the middle of nowhere. We spent a night there where the kids learned to play the tam-tams (local drums) and the next day headed out by 4x4 jeeps to cross the "black desert" and do some serious off-roading (the boys loved this). We spent that night camping out under the stars in very high-end Berber tents created with wool blankets and complete with electricity run by a portable generator. The kids loved playing hide and seek in the dark and among the dunes and we all bundled up for a very cold night.

Our dromedario, "Boxy"
Mom and Colin atop camel
The next morning we did the very touristy camel ride for an hour in some local dunes and then hopped back in the van for the trip to our next destination, the mountain village of Tinergher near the Todra Gorge. After a walk through the village and obligatory stop at a local families carpet making operation (where we were served tea by the patriarch and both families purchased the cliche Morrocan carpet), we took a quick walk thru the Gorge before getting back in the van for a long ride thru some remote areas where we saw an enormous movie studio and the famous ancient village of Ait Benhaddou. Then it was up and over the very scenic (but long and windy) Atlas mountains before descending in to the chaos of Marrakesh. 

Colin with a scaly friend
Palace in ruins
We spent the next day touring the Medina of Marrakesh including an amazing crumbling palace, the restored home of a past local government official who had 4 wives and 26 concubines (try explaining that to the kids) as well as an exotic garden owned by French designer, Yves St Laurent. In the central square in town we were quickly accosted by both snake charmers and gypsies who grabbled the kids hands and immediately painted them with henna partterns before demanding payment from the parents. What a different culture! Another exhausting albeit fascinating day.

Circle tag with the locals
Windsurfers on the beach
Then it was on to an overnight visit to Essaouria where we enjoyed some beach time and spent New Year's Eve (ironically our worst meal of the trip was the 3 course tourist meal provided by the hotel). Colin couldn't quite make it to midnight so I stayed in our hotel room with him while the Icelandics and Clark and Nat headed to the local square to set off some fun light-up toys and cheer in 2012 (apparently they were the only people there -- not a lot of partying happening in a muslim country). The next day was spent on the beach playing circle tag with some local teens (very polite by the way, although we didn't speak French and Arabic like them). Then we drove back to Marrakesh where we spent one last night before flying back to Spain via Sevilla.

All in all, an amazing experience that we were grateful to share with our Icelandic neighbors. We certainly added some wonderful memories to our time abroad.