Thursday, March 26, 2009

I'm going to leave kicking and screaming!

The past few weeks have been a blast. Minus 4 midterms, I've really been enjoying myself. I just finished my last one on Wednesday. Let's see here, to start where I left off. Two sundays ago I had a day trip to Aracena. It's a tiny town a few hours Northwest of Sevilla. On our way we stopped at some mines. The adjacent lake has a reddish tint, which is very pretty. The guide was telling us it has something to do with the copper or the other minerals. The area by the mines is used by NASA to simulate Mars. Needless to say, the area was slightly creepy.

The Riotinto

Here you can see the red tint better

Me and some friends. Clockwise from left: Colleen, Allison, Briana, Me, Julie, Danielle and Claire

Guess who?

The pretty Aracena sky

From the mines we headed to Aracena. We had too much free time (considering there's not too much to do there) and then met to see the caves. These caves were much larger than the ones we had seen in Gibraltar the day before. (It was a cave filled weekend...) The tour was about 45 minutes long, to give you an idea of how vast they really are. Sadly, they didn't allow pictures because the caves are living organisms. I guess you'll just have to visit it for yourself.

The week after Aracena was a bit of a stressful one with three of my four midterms. I've already gotten two of the grades back and they didn't go half-bad. The grading system here is very different. Everything is on a scale of ten points. A nine doesn't transfer back as an A-, they give us a bit of extra room so it's something like an 8.75 is an A-. I'm not sure if Spanish students are just lazy or if Spanish Professor grade harder, but the true average grade here is a 5. Even having a 5 average supposedly would get you into a good grad school. In our program handbook it explains that grades are not inflated here, like they are at home. I was talking about it at dinner last night with Antonio and Antonia and they said their kids never get above 8 and that they're good students. I know José Alberto has a scholarship, too. There was an information session for the kids interested in taking university classes and I heard that they told them if they do any work at all they'd be ahead of the Spanish students. That leads me to believe the grades are a combination of laziness and tough grading.

Every week seems to pass by so quickly here. Last weekend I went to MOROCCO! It was absolutely amazing. I had such a great time. We met at 5:45am on Friday at the Toro del Oro (a famous landmark) in Sevilla. From there we drove about 2 hours to a town called Tarifa. There's a boat called the fast ferry that goes between Spain and Morocco. The boat ride there was a breeze. It was super easy to go through customs (I'm starting to think the US is the only country that's crazy.) The night before I left my señora asked if I wanted a bocadillo (sandwich) and I said yes, but that I was concerned about bringing it through customs. Her response was, "Raquel, you're not going to the US." I got a kick out of that. I guess when they went to NY in January they had some minor issues getting through customs. Antonia had packed lunches for everyone and then when they got to Newark and were asked if they had any food Alvaro told them they had a lot. The customs agent also asked how old he was and he said he was in the institute. They called high school here el instituto, which obviously doesn't translate so well. José Alberto then corrected him and explained to that guy that he was actually in high school. It sounded like a funny exchange. I can only imagine how funny some of the things I say must be.

Back to Morocco, getting in was easy. Then we all got on the bus and they asked if anyone needed to exchange euros to dirham. Of course everyone did, so then we all got off the bus to go to the exchange places. It was kind of difficult to have to calculate multiple exchange rates. For instance, 10 dirham=1 euro=$1.30...more or less. I was expecting everything in Morocco to be really cheap, sadly that wasn't the case. The few meals that we had were cheap, but all of the chotzkes I wanted to buy weren't so cheap. So, after getting settled on the bus for a second time we started our journey to Chefchaouen, leaving Tangier. We made a random stop in this town which lined the side of the highway. There were maybe 10 buildings total, most of them restaurants. We wanted to try the food. One guy spoke spanish so we told him we wanted chicken. He said they didn't have a lot of chicken so he would give us beef. We decided it was best to just leave it, so we were served beef.

The carcasses on the side of the road aka lunch

The beef that we ended up with

After lunch we continued the never ending drive to Chefchaouen. The drive was on this tiny two-land highway that went through the mountains. I don't think the actually distance from Tangier to Chefchaouen is that far, but it takes a long time to get there considering it's on a very windy road.

Chefchaouen is an absolutely gorgeous little town. The population is only around 35,000, so it's on the smaller size. All of the buildings are painted blue and white. The blue is to keep the flies away and the white is to keep the house cool. An added benefit is how beautiful it makes the town look. This was our first "labyrinth". They warned us that the town of Chefchaouen doesn't even compare to Fez's labyrinth. We had a local guide who led us around, but we weren't actually there for too long.

Welcome to the picturesque town of Chefchaouen

When the ground is painted blue it means that it's a dead end.

This is the public bathhouse. If you look to the right you can see three cathedral ceiling. They each have a different water temperature.

More blue!

This is the community oven. If you want to use it you either need to pay them or bake an extra loaf of bread to give to them.

I want to live here!

Lots of dye!

Perhaps you get the idea by now. I just couldn't stop taking pictures. It was absolutely beautiful.

After leaving Chefchaouen we continued for another 3 plus hours to Fez. Friday we did a lot of driving. Probably the most I've ever done in a day, and I would like to keep it like that. When we got to Fez we were all exhausted so we ate dinner at the hotel and went right to bed. We were warned about several things before going to Morocco. Two of them being be careful with the food and do not under any circumstance drink the water. You even need to use bottled water to brush your teeth!

We were very lucky with the hotel we ended up staying at! We were supposed to stay at another hotel and I had made the mistake of looking it up online. It got terrible reviews so the whole day I was freaking out about it. That hotel was overbooked because the king was in town, so all of us were bumped up to another hotel. It was actually a Ramada, but it was super nice, 5 stars. (Which mind you is not the same rating as the US or even Europe, but still very nice.)

Saturday morning we had to wake up early again to meet to get on the bus at 8:30. Our first stop was the King's Palace. We didn't actually go inside, but it was cool to be there, especially considering that the king was in town. The entire front of the palace is mosaic. It's absolutely gorgeous and it reaffirmed my dream of hiring a Moroccan architecture to build my future house.

The King's Palace

Up close and personal

I believe this was the exact moment I decided I was going to hire a Moroccan architect

From the palace we went to this mountain which has a good view of the entire city, especially the Medina. Medina means city, but it refers to the old part of the city or the labyrinth, which our guide only repeated about 10,000 times. Half a million people live in this small area. There are between 9,000 and 15,000 tiny streets. Cars and motorcycles aren't allowed in, only donkeys are permitted. No joke. They use the donkeys to help transport stuff.

The view of the Medina from the mountain

Since the streets are so small you'll hear "watch out" in either french or arabic and then you need to hug the wall so the donkey loaded with various things can get through. It's really funny. They had warned us that it is imperative to stay together as a group because you can easily get lost. I thought they might be exaggerating a little to make us worry, but they definitely were not. If you get 5 paces behind the group you could easily lose them. It was funny though because the locals would see everyone pass and then point you in the right direction. I can't even explain how cool the medina was. It was full of twists and turns. The streets are lined with vendors. The food all looked so amazing, but I was too afraid to try any of it. Additionally, the swarms of flies on the veggies didn't look all that appealing. The colors were beautiful, though. There were also a ton of other different vendors, from clothing, to chotzkes to fabrics, etc.

Donkey crossing--watch out!

Our first in the Medina was at a University. Our guide claimed it was the oldest in the world. Not quite sure about that, but either way, it is very old. It's a really pretty building and I would be happy to study there. It puts IU in the dust.

Two different views of the University

After the university we wondered around some more and went to a leather tannery. It smelled really bad so they gave us mint leaves to hold to our noses. A gentleman explained the entire process, but I'm afraid I don't remember it. A very vague outline is that they bring the hides straight from the slaughter house and then the first step is to clean them and get all of the blood off. From there they need to sit out and dry and then I think they dye then. I could be making all of that up, but that's what I remember. On the bottom floor of the tannery there was a store where we were all pressured into buying things. It was appealing since we were all told, "for you, special price." I didn't succumb to the pressure, partially because I thought we would have more time to shop. Sadly, we didn't. I guess that just means I'll need to go back!

Looking down on the tannery

Up close of the dyes

The hides air drying

Smelling the mint to escape the nasty smell of the leather

Pretty shoes at the tannery that I'm regretting not purchasing

From the tannery we went to a loom factory. That's not the name, however I can't seem to think of it. There were several men working on looms and then they sold their products there. I couldn't resist and got two scarves. They're absolutely gorgeous and I can even say I saw the place that they were made. They made things as small as scarves to larger items like table cloths. They even showed us how to wear the traditional headscarf. It was definitely a tourist trap, but I still really enjoyed it. The only slightly sketchy thing was that I think our guide got a commission from most of the places he visited. They use bargaining for purchases, so our guide would say, "very, very good price," but I think he was lying. Other than that though, it was great.

Some of the pretty table cloths!

Getting some help with the head scarf tied

The final product :)

All of the girls. Clockwise from the left: Jen, Briana, Allison, Kelly, Andrea, Kathleen and Me.

An example of the busy medina streets

Getting geared up with some soft drinks

Right after I took this picture one of the men was getting ready to kill a chicken. Needless to say, I ran screaming.

After the scarf shop we went back to the hotel for lunch. After lunch we had the option of going on a tour of the ceramic and mosaic school and to the mosque or free time. Another warning we received prior to arriving was to spend as little time as possible away from the group. Needless to say, we went on the tour. The ceramic and mosaic school was really cool. They showed us all of the different steps and then of course there was a store. We saw two guys building stuff on the pottery wheels and I thought it was really interesting that it was completely manual. All of the wheels I've ever used have been electric and I've still had a hard time keeping the same speed. It's important to keep the same speed so that your work will be even on all side. These guys were controlling it just with the force of their feet. This time I caved into the pressure and bought a few souvenirs in the shop.

Example of the manually controlled wheel

Ceramics at the store

Our next stop was one of the mosques. Our guide told us that this is the only one that allows non-muslims to come inside, but that it can't be turning pray time. It was a pretty building, but there wasn't really too much to it. It's just kind of a large, open room.

The Mosque

Pretty mosaic. (Ps when I got home I told Antonio that I had taken a ton of pictures of tiles and mosaics to show to him. Have I mentioned he owns a ceramic store? I can't tell you if this is true, but he said the best ceramics are made in Sevilla and that people come here from all over to purchase it because the ceramics made in Morocco aren't durable. Please see note in previous blog about me not being able to believe what he says...)

After our tour of the mosque we headed back to the main gate of the medina. My friends and I decided we wanted to stay, while the rest of the group took the bus back to the hotel. Prior to splitting with the group we asked our guide where we could get some henna. He led us to the most obscure place. We only made a few turns, but we were all slightly worried about finding our way out. The first floor of this place looked like a house. We all commented that we felt that this was against our better judgement. The second floor was a rug store and then the third floor was like an apothecary. It was quite bizarre. Our guide set things up with the people working there and told them that we wanted henna. Right before he left we realized that the 7 of us there just spoke english and spanish and that the guys working there probably only spoke french and arabic. We all had minor panic attacks, but the one of the guys started speaking english, so we were relieved. They were all really nice and we couldn't stop laughing the entire time we were there. The henna was a really cool design, but sadly it never got really dark. It was really nice and one the guys walked us back to the main gate so we could catch cabs back to the hotel. My friend Andrea and I were trying to explain facebook to him. He only spoke a little english. He gave us his blog, but seeing that I don't know french, I'm unable to read it. We wrote down the link to facebook, but I don't know if he understood what we were trying to say, nor have I received a friend request yet.

Me and my new friend who's name is written on my hand and means hearts. What a souvenir!

When we got back to the hotel my friend described the day perfectly by saying, "my heart is smiling." I couldn't have agreed with her more. There was just something magical about Fez. That night we were on our own for dinner. We asked at the front desk if it would be safe for a group of 6 of us (all girls) to go out and they said yes. After the sun goes down you do not see women on the street. It was really weird. We walked around the corner to a japanese/moroccan/some other ethnicity that I'm forgetting restaurant. Our table was outside all of these people kept coming up to us trying to sell things. The waiter had to come out a few times to shoe them away. The menu was in french, so it was fun trying to decipher what we were ordering. There was a lot of charades going on. After dinner we went straight back to the hotel to sleep.

We woke up early again on Sunday morning. After we ate breakfast we started our trek back to the coast. Luckily, the drive wasn't so bad this time because we took a real highway and it didn't go through the mountains. On our way there we stopped in a small town called Asilah. It's know as the pearl of the ocean. Frankly, I'm not quite sure how it got that name. I guess it was pretty, but I wouldn't say it was jaw dropping...especially after spending time in Fez. We didn't actually do too much there, just walked around and got a quick tour from the guide. Then we got back on the bus to head to Tangier. On the way there the guide made a comment about the winds and that we were unlucky. I thought he was implying something, but at the time I didn't think too much about it. On the way to Tangier we stopped literally on the side of the highway so people could ride some camels. I opted out of it because they camels looked like they were in so much pain. Every time they stood up and got down they would cry out in pain. It was hard to watch. I figure I'll go on a camel ride somewhere else, and hopefully it won't be quite as much of a spectacle/tourist trap. Besides, I've been on them at fairs and stuff. Also, when I said camel ride, I meant walking in a 5-foot circle, not extremely appealing.

The coastline of Asilah

After the camels we drove to the port where we had some free time for lunch. Unfortunately there weren't a lot of dining options. We stopped at a few places and the most normal sandwich they had was shark, which meant I grabbed a piece of bread and some potato chips at a C-store. I believe it was listed as the lunch of champions. After lunch we traded our money back to euros and went through customs. Again, one of the most lax things I've ever seen. The fast ferry was supposed to leave at 4pm. We kept looking at our watches and couldn't figure out why we weren't leaving and it was after 4:30. As soon as the boat started to move we realized why our departure was later than planned, and also why our guide said we were unlucky. Within moments after we started to move a voice came over the loud speaker telling everyone to stay in their seats due to the rough seas. They also warned us about the sea-sickness bags in the seat pocket in front of us. It didn't take me long to realize that the conditions we were experiencing were not normal. The fast ferry was a pretty large boat, I would say it could hold about 800 passengers. We were literally doing nose dives into the waves. At one point in time if I looked to the right I could only see water and then only see sky if I looked to the left. We continued to rock back and forth. Unfortunately, these conditions were making everyone sick. It was disgusting. I'll spare you the details and just tell you that I had my fingers in my ears and was humming to myself with my eyes closed. What tipped me off about the conditions being worse than normal was the fact that the staff didn't look used to it. Additionally, the snack bar wasn't equipped for waves of this size. Huge coffee machines were flying all over the place. They needed to close everything up because it was falling off the shelves. It was really scary and I was really happy when I got off the boat.

Let's see here, I'm just trying to think of some other things to report. Last week I finally met with an intercambio (speaking partner). Her name is Carmen and she's also 20-years-old. I think we're going to try and meet again next week. Funny enough, the day after I met her I got a text message from intercambio number 4! I think I might try and meet up with her too. The more the merrier.

From Monday to Thursday morning we had 2 french boys staying here. They were 14 and 15-years-old and didn't really speak Spanish. I would talk to them in English (which was also a struggle for them) and my señora would talk to them in French. Let's just say I couldn't keep a straight face during dinner. We couldn't even figure out what town they're from. I think we have 2 more Frenchies next week. At first I was really upset about it, but it wasn't bad. They were only here for dinner and I didn't even have to share my bathroom. (I do feel a little guilty about that...)

The other night after dinner we played a game to see who needed to wash the dishes. It was me, Antonia and Antonio. It was Antonio's idea since he's always the one to wash them. Each person gets 3 coins. You put an undisclosed number in one hand and place your closed fist on the table. Then you have to guess how many coins you think there are all together. There's a maximum of 9 and a minimum of 0. The first one to guess right 5 times wins and then it continues with the 2 remaining people. They were saying that this game is typically played at bars between friends to see who is going to pay for everyone's beer. Antonia was the first to win so the final, intense, sweat-dripping round was between me and Antonio. I won so he needed to wash the dishes. We got a lot of laughs out of the game.

There's not too much else to report. I'm about to go out for the night to celebrate a friend's birthday!

Hasta luego,

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