Category Archives: travel

Hello Galapagos

Galapagos!

The cutest little seal

The cutest little seal

We arrive at Santa Cruz in the Galapagos eight days after leaving Panama.

Aside from some repairs that Axel had to carry out on the water pump, engine, and water maker, the trip was a uneventful (read: peaceful, calm, happy).

We had many beautiful sunsets, a view of the milky way at night, and wonderfully smooth sailing. It was such a magical trip, that I actually feel a little sad when we come into sight of land…

So I needn’t have worried. Thanks to all of you who gave me encouraging words after my last blog post. Perhaps I sounded a bit frantic? Hehe.

Don’t worry. I’m learning to be more accepting of the situations we get ourselves into on the boat. Although, old habits of thought die hard…I’m always in danger of a relapse!

Five. No! Yes, Five.

As we arrive, Andre from the boat Ecapoe, who has been in the Galapagos with his wife Birgit and three kids for the last 3 months, drives up in his dinghy to say hello. The last time we saw him was in July in Santa Marta, and it is wonderful to see his smiling face.

Soon, the customs guys comes on board – very friendly, with bad english to compliment our bad spanish. In the course of his routine questionning, he asks:

“How many GPS devices do you have?”
“Five.” says Axel.
The customs official shakes his head.
“No,” he says, “How many GPS?”
“Five,” says Axel.
“No,” says the customs official.
“Yes,” says Axel
“Five?”
“Yes,” says Axel
“Five!?”
“Yes, five”

The guy nods then, obviously very impressed by Axels copious GPS devices, and Axel wisely decides to keep his mouth shut when it occurs to him that we actually have nine GPS devices – that is, if you count our iPads and phones which we use for navigation as well.

“And how many VHF radios,” the customs official continues his questioning.
“Ah…four,” says Axel, a little sheepishly.
“Four?”
“Yes, four.”

Asistenta

Later, we are at the immigration office. They ask us to fill out forms with our name, address, passport information, and profession. For profession, I fill in “Software designer,” which is not exactly my job, but is the title I’ve taken to using since it is less confusing to most people than “User experience analyst,” which is what I actually do (um…did).

The immigration official takes our forms, and after a few minutes of tapping away at his computer, looks up at me and asks in Spanish “What is your profession?”
“Software designer,” I say.
He looks confused, and repeats “What is your profession?”
“Software designer,” I say, slowly enunciating the words.
He still looks confused, so I point to my form where I’d written it down.
He looks at it and shakes his head, not understanding.
“Con computadora” I say, and mime typing with my hands
“Ahhh! Secretaria!” he says
“No,” I say, shaking my head, “Soft-ware des-sign-er, ah…” I search my feeble Spanish for words to help describe what a software designer does, but end up feebly repeating “con computadora.”
“Ah!!” he says then, and nods knowingly “Asistenta!”
At which point Axel and I look at each other a little helplessly, before eventually responding with a shrug, “Si.”

Oh, nature. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…

I didn’t realize before, just now animal-free my normal environment is. I mean, we’ll get a few sparrows, some pigeons, maybe a rat or two if we’re lucky. And of course, there are cats, dogs, and other pets walking around on leashes or kept in the house.

Here in the Galapagos, we travel to town with the water Taxi, and have to step sideways around sea lions sunning themselves on the dock. In the morning, near the Charles Darwin Research station, we have to be careful not to step on any Iguanas, whose still forms fade into the concrete. Bright red crabs scuttle about on the rocks, and if you look, you will see a beautiful array of birds, including Herons, Pelicans, Warblers, Finches, and the wonderfully named Boobies.

I hear that on Bartoleme Island you can go snorkling with Penguins, and up in the highlands, you can commune with the giant tortoises.

If you are on facebook you should have seen Axel’s videos of our dives. If not, here are the videos Axel made:

I feel spoilt for having the chance to dive in the Galapagos. Perhaps I’ll never want to dive anywhere else again…there are turtles and turtles and turtles! And seals, and sharks, and a hundred thousand fish…a far cry from Santa Marta, where dynamite fishing has robbed the waters of the last remnants of coral reef.

Talk to one of the many biologists you will find dotted across the landscape here, however, and you get a sense of the constant battle between the conservationists and those out to make money off the wildlife. You hear stories of illegal over-fishing of sea cucumbers, sharks and other native fish, even in protected areas, and of certain individuals who’ve made a lot of money helping foreign fisher boats evade authorities…

Meanwhile, on the boat…

Some time during the trip here from Panama, I finally managed to settle into the boat life.

That isn’t to say that I am a “cruiser.” Not quite. I still think wistfully of the time we will arrive in New Zealand (Imagine! We will have a biig kitchen with SPACE, and a nice non-malfunctioning fridge, whose crisper I will keep stocked full of fresh berries and perishable leafy greens, and we might even have a dishwasher, and, oh oh oh, and every day I’ll take a steaming HOT SHOWER…)

But still, I am finally adjusted to life on Gudrun. I no longer swear profusely every time I have to get something out of the back lockers, I’ve stopped worrying obsessively that our anchor will drag in the night, and perhaps the most importantly, I’ve learnt to be more centered and self-contained, so that I don’t become consumed by loneliness each time we say goodbye to friends or move from one place to another, or so easily pushed into a strange depression when something unexpected happens, which is almost every week…

This week, our unexpected event involved the fridge, which simply stopped working.

Yes, the fridge stopped working. Which means that we have eaten the last of the Parmesan, and that I had to throw out the delicious chorizio we’ve been using to accent to our meals, and that there is a very real possibility that we’ll have to leave for our 3-4 week crossing to the Marquesas without a working fridge on the boat.

A year ago, I would be freaking out…”No yoghurt?” I’d think to myself, on the verge of throwing myself on the floor and writhing about in agony, “No cold drinks? No bacon? No CHEEESE!?” My lower lip would be trembling. “I can’t…it’s not possible…I need cheese or, or, I’ll DIE!!”

But, that was then, and this is now. I now realize in my infinite wisdom (could it be I am growing up a little?), that I probably won’t die if I can’t eat cheese for a month. In fact, I might do just fine.

And next?

Our time in the Galapagos is winding down. Ecapoe left for the Marquesas yesterday, and we miss them dearly. Over the next few days I’ll start thinking about provisioning – stocking up on fruit, veges, eggs, and beer, which is all that we are missing right now if you don’t count the cheese.

We plan on leaving next Tuesday for the Marquesas. We *have* to leave actually, since the authorities here have strict limits on how long boats are allowed to stay. Once we arrive on the other side, we will spend some weeks exploring the islands, as well as the Tuamotu Archipelago, and then make our way to Papeete in Tahiti. As usual, Axel will update his blog every day at 12pm our time. Here is the link: http://www.gudrunv.com/

Wish us luck!

Advertisements

Goodbye Santa Marta

B for blue, and boys with guns

The days leading up to our departure from Santa Marta seem to go slowly. There is just so much to do and not much time to do it in.

Axel is busy from dawn to dusk each day, slowly ticking off tasks on his todo list: fix engine, get wood for cock-pit table/bed, secure water cans to deck, check rigging, check sails, clean bilge, fix GPS…

I watch as he struggles each day through his list of tasks, unable to help much due to my lack of any idea (or interest) in anything even remotely related to boats. Aside from the time I spend working on my book (a few hours a day) and taking naps (omg, I loooove naps!), I find myself settling easily into the role of boat-wife.

I prepare the meals, plan and organize food supplies, do the washing, sew together curtains and mosquito nets, and fetch Axel a snack and a cold beer at the correct moment – for example, right when he finds out that he doesn’t have the right parts for his current task, and has to make another hot trek to the market.

Our natural tendencies in this relationship are clear: Axel is blue, and I am pink; and it’s an uphill struggle for me not to slip quietly into those comforting roles (and resulting dependency).

So, I’ve learnt to refill the water tanks, and change the water filter, and winch the dinghy up and down, and to tie my own sailory knots…baby-steps, I know, but steps nonetheless. Axel, on the other hand, does the washing sometimes,  despite the sarcastic comments he gets from the macho Colombian men in the marina, and always pitches in with cooking and cleaning.

The Thursday before we leave, Axel goes to the market to buy gaskets for the engine; but instead of the usual hub of commerce, bustling with people and activity, he finds a ghost-town. Friends later tell us that one of the guerilla organizations active in Colombia had issued a threat that they would kill anyone going to work, so everyone was laying low for a few days.

Up until now I’d become used to the military presence in Santa Marta – the armed guard at the Marina entrance, or the police who come out on Saturday evenings to watch the christmas crowds.

Since New Year, however, more soldiers have started to dot the landscape of the town. Many of them look like boys, with their faces looking young and sweet under their oversized hats; their hands too soft and fresh as they rest lightly on their guns. So I am somewhat glad on Monday, as I bake bread and banana loaf in preparation of our trip to the San Blas Islands, to think that we will finally be leaving Colombia, our home-base for the last seven months.

Departure

We wake at 6:30am on Tuesday, the day we will leave, and everything seems to go too fast. There is still a lot to do – fill the water tanks, have a last warm shower, clear away the dishes, and put everything into lockers or behind netting so that nothing will fly around once we get underway.

The forecast is windy, supposedly, but Axel says it will be ok. It might be weeks before the winds die down, and we are already a little delayed in our schedule for crossing the Panama Canal, so now is as good a time to leave as any.

Axel goes to the Marina office to pay our bill. I climb the ladder into the salon to double check that all my stuff is stored away, but leave Axels things for him to clear up when he gets back.

Once I’m done, I sit reading my book “It’s your boat too – a Woman’s Guide to Enjoyment on the Water.”

Soon my forehead furrows with anxiety as I learn for the first time about thru-hulls and sea-cocks and those little corks that you are supposed to have attached to lanyards in case of an emergency leak.

I mean, I guess I’d always known that there were holes in the boat – how else could the toilet work? But, I had never actually thought about it before.

Do we have any little corks? I ask myself, a little panicked. I don’t know! What if we spring a leak on the crossing and we don’t have a cork? What will we DO!?

I write ‘Cork plugs’ down in my notebook with a check box next to it, along with a growing list of other items that I should discuss with Axel as I become more familiar with the our boat, Gudrun.

Axel comes back, then, and smiles at me as he clambors back over the railing. I smile back. Then, after taking a look about the deck, he claps his hands together and says “So, we might as we well go now then, huh?” before bending down to turn on the engine.

I look up in surprise, my head filling with thoughts that I am unable to put into words.

What!? But…don’t you want to go below and stow your stuff away? I think, looking down the companionway with a worried glance.
Or, perhaps we should take the time to talk about whether we have any little corky things?
Or, maybe we should go over to see our friends in the other boats one more time, just to say goodbye
Or…or…

A friendly Marinero comes up to help loosen the lines from the dock, and I catch them as he throws them over the railing. Axel puts the gear in reverse and Gudrun slowly put-put-put’s her way out of the slip where she’d been sitting since July.

But Axel, I think, didn’t you want to clean under the floorboards before we left? And…don’t you want to double check that everything is ok. Maybe we could sit down together and review our list of preparations? And have you cleaned your teeth? And maybe I should use the bathroom one last time before we go…

I stand in the cock-pit, feeling a little lost as I watch the familiar shapes of the boats on the dock shift around me. One of the guys cleaning the boat next to us gives a little wave goodbye, and I wave back, realizing that although I’d exchanged nods with the man almost every day the past few months, I didn’t even know his name.

I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to actually leave, like…right now.

But it’s too late. We are already out of our slip and sliding over the water.

“Off we go again!” says Axel, with excitement, and feel a kind of excitement too as Axel puts the boat into forward gear.

“Goodbye Santa Marta!” I speak out into the air, and immediately feel that sad little melancholy that I always feel when we leave a place that has been a kind of home.

Loss

Not long after we leave the shelter of the Marina, waves start rocking the boat.

Despite all my morning efforts, things below start rolling about. I wince at the banging noises made by various objects as they hit the floor, and my eyes open wide as I stare down the companionway and see Axel’s camera sliding across the navigation table below deck.

I  jump down the ladder to do damage control, already disliking the chaos that the trip has started in. Bracing myself against the rocking of the boat, I pick up the camera from the table, and scoop some sunscreen and sunglasses from the floor, along with a pile of hats which had tumbled down from where they had been wedged on their shelf.

Just as I’m trying to decide what to do with the garbage bin, which is flapping open and closed with the rolling waves, a cupboard at the back of the salon comes flying open, spilling clothes, umbrellas, envelopes, and various other odds and ends out onto the floor.

I scramble to the front, grab the duct tape we store there, and then make my way back again. Picking up the items on the floor, I shove them messily back into the cupboard, before taping the door shut. I then belatedly remember all the other cupboards, which also have a tendency to fly open while sailing, so I stagger about the rocking cabin, taping them shut as well.

I’m starting to feel sea-sick now. My head is spinning, and there is a wobbly feeling in the pit of my stomach. I climb out into the cockpit and look at Axel who is smiling.

“Well done,” he says, and I can only smile weakly in response.

“I’m going to put the sail up,” he says, squinting upwards, and I nod in agreement.

Looking back down into the salon, however, I see that our precious containers full of fruit and veges have started shifting from where we’d wedged them under the table. I jump down the ladder again, and duct tape them firmly to the table legs, this time giving up on trying to keep my balance in the unpredictable waves, and simply sprawling ungracefully on the floor as I work.

“Liz!” Axel yells, needing me up top.

But I look around the cabin and see all the other things lying around; just waiting for me to climb back above into the fresh air, before they come falling down to the floor with a crash and a bang and all sorts of uncomfortable sounds and feelings.

I grab Axels toiletry bag and shove it in a cupboard, and a pencil case, which I shove into a gap between some books, and I grab a little gray bag that Axel has left sitting on the seat…and feel a sharp pain in my hand.

I look down then and see blood, and I get so incredibly pissed.

What kind of stupid, annoying, leaving-things-about-before-we-go-sailing stupid, douchbag would leave a bag lying there with something sharp in it for anyone to cut themselves on?

“Liz!” Axel shouts from the cockpit. I stay below for just a few seconds more, pouting angrily as I spray the small wound in my hand with antiseptic, and, feeling incredibly sorry for myself, woozily climb the ladder.

Axel is standing at the helm: “Can you help me with the winch…”

“Yes,” I say. And I turn the winch to tighten the fore-sail, feeling sad, hurt, annoyed, and somehow incredibly lonely. I’m sweating all over, and my arms feel weak. I know I am winching slowly, but I don’t feel that I can go any faster.

“You have to pull it harder,” says Axel.

“Ok”  I say, continuing to winch slowly.

“No, pull it the other way,” he says, pointing out that it’s a 2-speed winch, and by pulling in the other direction I would pull the sail in faster.

“I can’t,” I snap. And just to show him how much I can’t, I pull it the other way and cannot get it all the way around…even though, if I were really honest with myself, I might have been able to pull it around once…if I had tried with all my might.

“Ok, ok,” he says apologetically as I finish pulling the sail tight.

I sit there in the cockpit, not thinking any thoughts, but simply feeling…pressed on. Feeling surrounded by chaos, disorder – up in the air and about to fall over with a crash of sound.

I look behind me, beyond the rolling waves, and see the familiar sight of the lighthouse in front of Santa Marta. Behind the lighthouse, I see the mountains, which I had looked out across each morning while we were in Colombia. In my minds eye our friendly café Lulo, where we would drink delicious smoothies and chat about our day with the owners, David and Melissa. I see the Marina staff, who were always so full of smiles. I imagine walking along the dock – my hallway corridor – on my way to take a shower or out into the city to run errands, nodding hello to the people on the other boats as I passed. I see the beautiful landscape slowly falling away from me, and feel a great loss.

We will never come back, I find myself thinking, and I feel an empty space in my chest, where before there had been a sense comfort, security, and familiarity.

And without my consent, my chest starts to heave. I start to sob, harder than I ever have before, gulping in air as my eyes fill with tears.

We are leaving again. Goodbye Santa Marta…

Ode to Santa Marta:

Good bye Santa Marta! Our home for seven months, kind of, in a way.

Goodbye to the street vendors with your Chiclets and cut-up mango, and beer and lollipops and individually wrapped candies for sale.

Goodbye to the kitchy xmas lights which sprouted up all over the city in December, in all their towering, green, glowing glory.

Goodbye to the girls taking photos on the beach-front, flicking your hair back to strike a sexy pose, even though you are only six years old.

Goodbye Ceviche stand! Oh-my-goodness you are so tasty, with your lime and onions and mayonnaise, all mixed up with a little ketchup.

Good-bye to the store mannequins with your oversized breasts.

Goodbye to the sleazy old men who stare at all the girls as they walk, and to the immigration officers who tell Axel how I look Japanese and good on him for finding an asian-looking girl and ignoring me even though I’m standing RIGHT THERE.

Goodbye to the Vallenato music, sounding beautifully half-drunken as your accordion-laced rhythm wafts harshly out of doorways, and the people sit there, listlessly on the steps.

Goodbye café Lulo, who has the best Arepa in South America, and smoothies that will bring you back to earth on a steaming hot day.

Goodbye taxi drivers who drive between lanes, and go the wrong way around roundabouts, and yes, that’s right, beep all you want! Beep at pedestrians 30 meters ahead, and at other cars who cut you off, and at other cars as you cut them off! Beep when you coming up to an intersection too, or around a blind corner, because only gringos slow down. ‘Show no weakness!’ I here you cry! ‘Don’t stop until you can see the whites of their eyes!’ I will, perhaps miss you most of all.

Goodbye to the Marineros at Santa Marta Marina with your helpful smiles and happy hearts, and the one guy who told me three times now about how one of his sons has a birthday today, but he doesn’t have any money to throw a party…

Goodbye to the military with your assault rifles, and curious assortment of guns and equipment, and faces that look much too young.

Goodbye to the barred windows and doors, and protected locks, and to the stray cats and dogs lying about with a little animal smiles on their haggard faces.

Goodbye to Ben and Josep’s with your awesome steak and overly friendly waiting staff.

Goodbye to the tropical fruits, which I stare at quizzically while at the supermarket: the lulo, the guanábana, the borojó, the mamoncillo, the zapote! All so tart, and tangy, and sweet.

Goodbye to the people in the supermarket who always lean on my cart at the checkout and look at me sullenly and don’t seem to care that it’s MY cart goddammit.

Goodbye to the reliably unreliable craftsmen who might show up at 11am tomorrow as discussed, or may show up at 9am the next day instead.

Goodbye to the ever-helpful service-people, who will tell you ‘Yes! Anything is possible!’ ‘Yes! I can get you whatever you need!’ Just as long as you don’t mind waiting 2 hours, or 2 days, or 2 weeks…

Goodbye to the druggies, who show no mercy in hounding tourists for money, and who you can find lying about on the streets in various states of dissarray as the sun comes up each morning.

Goodbye to the cockroaches, who seem just a little stupider than the cockroaches I’ve met elsewhere, perhaps because the pickings are so good.

Goodbye to the crappy sewage system, which fills up and bursts over, exuding it’s warm steamy smell over the city after a good rain.

Goodbye to the people in the market shouting ‘Alle orden! Alle orden!’ I know you are there for me, if I should ever need some limes, or avocado, for example, of perhaps a nice piece of fish.

Goodbye to the buxom women who walk about in packs, dressed up with 5 inch heels and boobs up to their eyebrows, and that little strut in their walk that warns ‘If anyone ever falls in love with me, I’m gonna make their lives hell.

Goodbye to the little toddlers who walk next to their mothers and fathers like little adults. You are amazing. You don’t need a pram, or a stroller, or dangly toys, or a blankie, or wet wipes, or anything except the clothes on your back. You are confident in yourself, and I envy you for that.

And finally, a goodbye to the beautiful people of Santa Marta, who make me feel like I’m in the eighties again because of the simplicity of your faces, and your clothes and approach to life. I know that you want to leave your home town, to find another, better life, perhaps. But believe me, it’s not that bad right here, either.

A quarter tone day

We just spent a magical week in Andalusia in the south of Spain. The highlight was on Sept 11th when we travelled with our friends Antonio, Mariajo and Teresa to Tangier, Morocco. Report below…I will add more pics later when I have more time :-).

***

Inshallah

Hello Africa

The ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar from Tarifa to Tangier takes just thirty-five minutes. After I get over the excitement of stepping on the African continent for the first time, we spend time fending off hustlers at the ferry terminal before being collected by Mohammed – a friend of a friend, Moroccan native, and our guide for the day.

We shake hands in welcome. When Mariajo asks Mohammed if he is well, nods his head and murmurs “Inshallah,” which can be loosely translated to mean ‘If God wills it.’ It is a beautiful word, and reflects a fundamental view that any endeavor a person sets their sights on should be within the great plan of God (Allah) or the Kosmos.

Mohammed and Antonio

Greetings complete, we set off towards the city. Mohammed walks ahead, talking quietly to Antonio in Spanish. He is wearing a long, hooded tunic with subtle red and cream stripes, a thin, russet-red head-scarf, and tastefully pale leather shoes. Later, when he sits, I notice his fashionable socks and fitted pants.

His hands are large and expressive, like those of a craftsman or an orator. As he walks he folds them behind his back, and when he talks they come alive; rolling inward and outward to create tension or to express a point, or perhaps resting with quiet energy on the arm of his chair as he leans forward to speak. On each hand is a large silver ring set with semi-precious stones in red and turquoise, catching the eye.

He turns to Axel and I as we enter the city proper, “It is your first time here?”

We nod in agreement, obviously a little apprehensive, and he smiles to assure us, “You are with Mohammed. You do not have to worry. I am very cultural. You will have a good day.”

Our guide has a soft, insistent voice, and he switches topics with ease. “We come from two sides,” he explains about Tangier, “The rich and the poor. Through this we learn many things. We learn how to come through a crisis in peace.”

Storyteller

Orange juice and mint tea

We quickly find a café and take our seats. Mohammed orders drinks and starts to talk. “My name is Mohammed. Last name Alaoui, which comes from Ali, which is the name of the King. Ali is one and Alaoui is many.”

His words come quickly, rolling after one another, and I do not catch all of his words. “When I was young I met my great grandfather, a very wise man…such men, they do not lie, they do not take the things of others…such men are something like angels, no?”

He pauses, and everyone at the table nods and murmurs their agreement.

“My grandfather told me that I would be with my mother until she died…and I was only together with my grandfather for 14 days, and then he died…Later when I was older I came to visit my mother and I had 14 days with her, and she also died.”

He sits back in his chair and tilts his head, continuing in his lilting accent. “This is a story of life. It is a sad story, but for me a fun story.”

The waiter comes and pours us mint tea, sweetened with honey, and soon Mohammed speaks again.

“I meet people from all over the world. And I ask them what life is like where they come from. They say, ‘It’s hard, it’s very hard.’” As he says this he shakes his head and furrows his brow just like a man discussing how hard his life is would do.

“But it is life. It is always the same. There are 24 hours in a day. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” He is almost laughing now as he gestures with his hands about the simplicity of it all. “It is the people that are hard. Life does not get hard, the people get hard.”

Mohammed’s eyes are sometimes brown, sometimes black, sometimes gray. Now and then he will glance sideways into the city and they flash iridescent.

Storyteller

He is a storyteller, and we will become used to his phrase “Tengo una historia.” I have a story. We will explore Tangier and listen to the patchwork of ideas that he presents. He will tell stories about people he has met, parties he has planned, and decisions he has made. He will recounts fables from Arab folklore, he will share his thoughts on the world and the people in it, he will talk about morality, hospitality, faith, destitution, and humility.  A mix of the familiar and the alien, he will present a unique image of humanity to us, his captive audience.

He hands us his business card – ‘Mohammed Alaoui, Specialist in Moroccan Artisan & Culture.’

“My friends tell me I should write a book,” he explains, “But if I write a book, I will die. Everyday I meet with people and talk to them.”

He raises his brow, long face gathering into wrinkles that suggest a good natured past. “They say ‘When I am here, you have me. When I am not here, you will have a picture of me’…a memory.”

“You understand?” he asks, looking directly at Axel and I, and we can only smile shyly because we are not entirely sure that we do.

“Important people you remember,” he continues. “Would you forget your mother? Would you forget your honey? Through people you learn about humanity… about culture.”

We finish our tea, stand, and walk towards the Medina, the marketplace in the heart of the Tangier.

Medina

Marketplace

There are hawkers and sellers on the street offering sweet pastries, dates, eggs, and household knick-knacks. Music in quarter tone scales drifts out of stores as we pass, bathing us in the sounds of the orient. The streets are not dirty, and neither are the people. There are no nasty smells wafting up from the sewers, and there is little garbage lying about the streets, although we do have to pick our way past inexplicable piles of rubble strewn across our path.

The men that come to sell cheap jewelry and other shiny things to tourists do not try to overwhelm by force. Instead they are soft and persistent; following slyly at your side, persuading with their presence and soothing sounds. I do not understand what they say to me but I can imagine…Come nice lady please by my shiny thing. It is so cheap, and such good quality, you will not find a better shiny thing in all of Tangier. It will look beautiful on your mantelpiece or sitting on your desk. It is a beautiful color don’t you think? Why do you not want to buy it? I’ll give you such a good price…

The locals seem to have a sense of humor, for the most part. “Dress like Alibaba?” one hawker asks with a smirk, flourishing a beautiful black and gold tunic; Another women smiles and winks at me from beneath her hijab. The storekeepers are friendly, despite a lingering sense of desperation. Please buy from me, they plead with their eyes as we walk past, please buy!

Handshake

As we walk Mohammed exchanges friendly greetings with people on the street. A smile here, a nod there. Or perhaps he will stop to exchange a few words with a poor woman sitting on the stairs.

I’m surprised to note that he is one of the few men wearing traditional dress. Most men are dressed in jeans or track pants with a simple shirt. There are comparatively few women on the streets, and none frequenting the many cafes where the men sit to drink a tea or a coffee and watch people pass.

We walk into an archway and find stall after stall of fruit and vegetables. Men selling olives, powdered spices, dried fruit, and plastic party favors. We walk further to find stalls displaying raw meat, gleaming red and white and overpowering us with it’s pungent smell. Finally, we arrive at the fish market, with it’s own unique haze of sound and smell.

“Keep your bag in front of you. Camera in the hand,’ Mohammed warns us seriously, and we do just that.

Outside again, we stroll past indigenous Berber women in their floral print shirts and brightly colored cardigans. The smell of Coriander wafts up to us as they sit on the ground and sort through piles of herbs.

We walk up a rubble-strewn stairway to find craftsmen working on their looms. They smile at us as we pass and continue throwing their shuttle back and forth and pulling the loom to secure the thread. Swisssh, whomp! Swissssh, whomp! We pass racks of hand-made cloth in all colors and styles. Deep red, sky blue, and purest white. Shimmering silk scarfs and thick woolen tunics worn by rural villagers against the cold.

We shop in the Medina, whose winding corridors are covered in delicate mosaics and peeling yellow paint. We peer into shops selling cosmetic oils, woven silk, and treasures made of porcelain, cedar, gold, and amber. The store-keepers, seeing us with Mohammed, weigh their options for a moment before offering us ‘Alaoui price!’

Here and there, sitting on a pile of rugs or an ornamented table I see a copy of the Koran, pages worn from use. On the third floor of a store selling hand-woven rugs there is a man kneeling in his daily prayer. At the edge of the Medina as we walk past leaning eucalyptus trees there is a taxi driver sitting in his car singing the verses of the Koran – eyes closed and lost in his own private devotion. I get the feeling of another sense of time. A quarter-tone moment.

Every now and then Mohammed will approach me, perhaps the quietest in our little tour group and say, “If you have questions, you ask Mohammed. Don’t be afraid to ask.” But I do not have any questions. I am simply soaking in the world on the other side.

Oasis

At lunchtime all six of us squeeze into a creaky taxi and drive up the hill to Mohammed’s home.

Geometry

As we drive I’m struck by the geometry of the city. Squares, diamonds, octagons. Crescents, stars, and arches. I feel the shapes bursting out of buildings and spilling out onto the streets, reflecting a culture that may or may not be more thoughtful than my own, but which is most definitely more strongly rooted in its history.
We see houses perched on the hill like little mismatched boxes dropped haphazardly about, plop plop plop and I feel worlds away from the homogeneity and orderliness of Germany.

Clambering out of the taxi, we climb the hill to Mohammed’s house and are ushered into a beautiful home filled with brightly decorated pots, carpeted floors, floral motives, and photographs of relatives and friends. Along the walls there are long cushioned seats. The living room is partitioned. ‘Separate areas,’ Mariajo explains to me, ‘This one is for the women, this one is for the men.’

Lunch!

Lunch is a feast, starting with the sweetest dates I have ever tasted and continuing with a cacophony of spices and hearty colours; yellow, orange, and red.

After lunch we sit for some hours on the upstairs balcony and relax. Sucking on sweet figs and melons, we cushel down into the soft and welcome reprise from the heat and the bustle of the city.

Crossroads

Refreshed, we return to the city and make our way to the famous Cafe Hafa, one-time hangout of oh-so-many famous personalities..Picasso, William Burroughs, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. What do you think, perhaps if we sit here we will be famous too?

The plastic tables are sticky to touch as I sit and watch the wasps coming to drown in my hot mint tea. The Atlantic sits peacefully in the background and in the distance I can see the fuzzy outline of the European continent. Mohammed taps his fingers on the table, waiting patiently for us to enjoy the café.

“Tangier is a city of different cultures. The Berber who were here originally, the African, and the Arab. There is one thing we share that unifies and that is Islam. There may be people that say I am Arab, or I am African, or I am Berber. I myself am Arab. But we believe that there is One Way…”

Looking over the Bay of Tangier

Soon we leave to make our way back to the Port. We walk past the flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea. We notice the youths smoking pipes or sniffing glue from bags in the soft light of the setting sun. They sit or stand in rock star poses, listening to Arab hip-hop, and generally just getting their attitude on – worlds away from the more respectful youths we had seen working in the market.

We leave them there sitting the clifftop – at the crossroads of Africa and Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – and stroll through Kasbah, the old citadel with it’s picturesque doors, and tiny, misplaced windows. Warm pastels dominate the scene, with accents of emerald green and electric blue.

I must watch out. If I fall too far behind our small group it is not long before some young man appears to stare or make vulgar kissing sounds, usually from the safety of a rooftop balcony or a cruising scooter. A few pre-teens appear and make a sport of bumping into me as they pass, and I can only wonder at what kind of thrill they get out of the exercise.

Our last hour in Tangier is filled with frantic last minute shopping – antiques, silk, bread, and Agan oil for the girls to make us young and beautiful. I watch the young Muslim girls with their demure manner and modest steps and I’m suddenly self-conscious of my usual righteous stride.

Return

Back at the dock we kiss Mohammed goodbye and he hurries back to his regular life in the city.

Axel immediately catches me up in a bear hug as we step onto the Ferry. Public displays of affection between the sexes is frowned upon in the Muslim world, and it had been an exercise in self-restraint for us the entire day.

We order an artificially delicious frozen pizza from the bar and a few beers to wash them down as we sort through our bags of treasures from the markets.
Thirty-five minutes later we are back in Spain. There is a festival going on and we happily watch families walking together on the streets, struck by the contrast to Tangiers male-dominated public life.

Still, I find myself wishing that I will soon be back to visit this strange other world.

Inshallah.

Six days in Belgrade

View from Kalemegdan fort in Belgrade

We have left Belgrade now, but barely six days was all that was needed to infuse us with the sweet nostalgia characteristic of our Serbian hosts. We sit here in Zagreb, a mere 400km away and look back fondly on the lazy days and warm nights spent in the Serbian capital.

Jovana and Nebosja on their wedding day

The reason for our trip to Belgrade was to attend the wedding of Jovana and Nebosja – old friends from university. Perhaps it was the presence of good friends and the wedding itself which has left such a pleasant sentiment in my mind, but I still feel that there was something else about the city that left it’s mark on me. Let me explain what I mean…

Walking the streets of Belgrade leaves you with the sensation of visiting a provincial town rather than  a city of 1.2 million. The ease with which locals saunter through the streets, their relaxed manner as they serve you coffee or food, and the unprepossessing nature of the buildings and architecture all lull you into a kind of a sway; there is a softness to the city which encourages you to take a seat somewhere next to a friend, to order a drink and to chat together as you watch the world go by.

It wasn’t until we arrived in Zagreb that I realized what set Belgrade apart in my mind. I have difficulty finding words to describe it, but an idea that keeps coming back to me is the word humble.  Humble, simple, strong.

The people in Belgrade dress simply. This is not to say that they do not dress up. Serbian women walk the streets in ornamented and precariously high heels, short skirts, sparkling necklaces and bejeweled earrings. They dress well and pay attention to their appearance, so much so that my sister Elaine and I felt a little embarrassed to be wondering around in our casual, dirt-covered flip-flops.

I leave Belgrade with a feeling of simple beauty and style, and a refusal to cover up natural beauty with too much make-up, too many accessories, or too much complexity. As we drove out of the city to drop Elaine of at the airport we saw teenagers hanging out on the side of the road wearing jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers; a far cry from the over-labelled and over-dressed look of the kids in Zagreb (or Havana, or New Jersey, or London, or…) who seem to be struggling to express themselves, searching for their identity in elaborate hair-dos, artisan bags, and reams of cheap jewelry. Whether this simplicity is due to choice or necessity, I find myself hoping that this aspect of life in the White City will not change.

Belgrade is not made for tourists. It does not offer helpful signposts, flashy storefronts or showy signs which are soothing and alluring to the tourists eye.  They have yet to place a deli/coffee-to-go joint on each corner where hungry travelers can gulf down their one-stop meals before running off to visit various museums and churches.

And yet, every shopkeeper you meet will speak to you in friendly and well-versed english. The straight-faced waiters will politely answer your questions and help you choose a meal from the confusing array of grilled meats, even as they smile behind their notebooks or let out little guffaws of disbelief as you order your tea with milk, or ask for a pork escalope in the middle of the day without ordering a salad or a soup.

The people of Belgrade seem to be amused by western tourists and our clumsy bumbling about the city’s soft pavements. They are happy we are here,  but not yet ready to compromise their city in order to cater to our whims and sensibilities.

Fountain in the city center

Elaine and I spent a lazy afternoon sitting next to a communal fountain, a remnant of the cities socialist past. Clear water streams from the fountains many taps, providing a sense of abundance. As we sit, munching on popcorn from a street vender, women come to fill their water bottles or lift a child to the tap,  men wash their hands and faces, and even the local dogs and pigeons come to drink in peace.

Later, walking about the city, we hear 90’s dance music drifting out from the shops and restaurants, harking back to a simpler time. Now and then we see a face or hear a tune that smacks of the east, but rather than seeming foreign or out of place as they would in the west, these impressions of the orient feel comfortable, meaningful, part of the fabric of life.

Shots of Slivovitz (Serbian brandy) on Skadarska Street

Our first night we discovered Skadarska, a restaurant-lined street in the old bohemian quarter that was revived by poets and writers in the 20th century. Skadarska street is pure romance. The street glistens with light from lanterns and restaurant-fronts, tasteful graffiti decorates the walkway, and any night of the week will find the street full of locals enjoying themselves, cocooned in the warmth of the stone walls around them. Turkish cobble roads, a remnant of one of the many occupations in Serbia’s troubled past, add to the romance and provide a treacherous gauntlet for tipsy women in heels trying to pick their way back home.

It is summer and everyone sits outside on the terraces, but a trip inside your chosen restaurant to the bathroom will reveal walls covered with ornaments, dated black-and white-photos, gold and floral decorations, and staff members sitting comfortably at tables enjoying a breather.

Musician and performer at the restaurant

Every restaurant has a band of musicians playing ballads, waltzes, and gypsy songs. They step up to your table and play just loud enough so that you are not sure when you slip them a few bank notes whether you are paying them to play or to leave you alone.

Skadarska is a place to fall in love, and indeed, I think I may have fallen in love there: with my friends, with the musicians playing slightly out of key, with our haughty helpful servers, and with Belgrade itself.

Food glorious food!

Finally, any description of Belgrade could not be complete without a discussion of the food. The food, like the people, is both simple and strong, a joyous mix of  Balkan, Mediterranean, Turkish, Austrian, and Hungarian cuisine. A meal will start with a plate of cheese, buttery spread, and cold-cut meat, all served with a generous portions of rich, fluffy farmers bread. Cheese strudel, clear soup, and salads filled with bright red tomatoes tasting of farmland and earth can also be added to the beginning of the meal and supposedly help to expand the stomach in preparation for the main dish.

For a main meal you can choose from a dazzling variety of grilled meats: lamb, chicken kebabs, spicy sausages, or minced meat patties stuffed with onions, each served with a healthy side of potatoes. I cannot say much about the desserts, since we were always too full to manage anything else, and I guess that is reason enough for me to promise to go back and visit again.

So there it is. Liz falls in love with Belgrade. Of course, this is probably the kind of love that blossoms and grows from a distance. Serbian friends living in the UK or the US talk about the crumbling infrastructure in Belgrade, the backwards habits of the provincial locals, and the lack of basic comforts and civilized conventions that we have come to rely on in our respective countries of residence.

They too visit Serbia only for vacation – to visit old friends, to taste the food, to enjoy the atmosphere, to reminisce , and at the end of the week return to their new lives with the happy memories of a place that feels like it will never change.

Good bye Belgrade! Thank you for the good times. Thank you my friends for being your amazing selves! You are now part of my new-found nostalgia…

Cheers!

(jiggy jiggy jiggy)

You can’t have everything good

We travel about Puerto Rico and see a country of contrasts. Dense tropical forest gives way to vast malls selling American-brand food.

Buldings, old and new

Road to San Juan

Walking to Old San Juan, we pass buildings that were once stunning – majestic, proud, strong. Now, the paint is faded, the stonework cracking and the windows boarded up. In the old town itself, refurbished houses in striking colors huddle up next to dilapidated store-fronts that haven’t felt the joy of human occupation in many years.

Colourful house

Colours

The architecture is beautiful and creative. Houses explore possibilities with unique shapes, slanting columns, and crazy colours. It’s a refreshing change after the strict conformity of German housing.

Driving, however, is an adventure. I distract myself with pleasant memories of the orderly German autobahn as we brave the Puerto Rican roads. Rusty old cars zoom across pot-holed lanes, honking at us when we don’t do what they want when they want it.

The people we have met have been lively, open, and thoughtful, and each of our conversations with the locals leaves me with a smile on my face.

Pizza hut pizza

Dreaming of cheese

We were walking in Old San Juan on Monday. I was starving, and we made plans to find us an awesome, cheesy pizza. Visions of cheese-covered dough filled my mind. This was important.

Axel wanted to get some maps and information from the tourist center, however, and I relented (because it was on the way to the pizzeria).

When we arrived at the center it was barred shut. We peered sadly through the bars trying to figure out when it would open, and eventually heard a voice from inside, ‘Can I help you? Come in, come in.’

A man poked his head out of the inner door gesturing us in, and we timidly swung open the gate to enter.

Picture of Axel

Axel, looking very German

‘You German?’ he asked Axel.

‘Yes’

‘Then you can come in.’

‘Where you from?’ he asked me, and I told him.

‘New Zealand?’ he exclaimed in the excited way people do when I tell them I’m from New Zealand.

‘Then you can stay all day!’

We walked in and saw things strewn about the room in a state of disarray. I assume they were renovating.

The man was very large, but unimposing. His friendly face and animated voice attracted my full attention, leaving no time to observe the rest of him.

Flight of the conchords

New Zealanders, friendliest people in the world!

He talked quickly and energetically. ‘New Zealand has the friendliest people in the world! The friendliest people! It is a beautiful beautiful place.’

‘Have you been there?’ I asked, expecting him to say yes.

‘No. I’ve only been to Australia. I only had 2 weeks, and just a few days is not enough to see a beautiful place like New Zealand. I didn’t want to go there, you know, just to get a check on my list – done that, done that. But I will go there one day. I will visit properly.’

He explained to us that he worked for the city. As usual, I forgot his name as soon as he mentioned it. My head was too full of the conversation as he chatted away with us in his easy-going manner about hockey, about Puerto Rico, and about his travels.

‘Now Germany, that’s a great place. I’ve been there. You know, there is the American propaganda. They tell us the Germans are bad. But I go there and I see some things. I visit Germany and the people are good. Then I visit France and the people are not so good. You have to understand, I was born in the 60’s.’

Pic of Puerto Rican

Bad guy, Hollywood style

It was the same with us. The day we arrived Axel observed that the Puerto Ricans all looked like the bad guys on TV.

‘You seem to have travelled quite a lot.’ Axel observed.

‘Yes, I’ve travelled. I went to South Africa and saw some crazy places. I lived in the middle east for some months, India for a year, China for a year.’

He looked at me. ‘You have Chinese roots, no? China is a great place.’

I stood listening to our talkative friend, slightly in awe. He looked at our faces, and added ‘But you know, there is good and bad. I have the travel, but I have problems in other areas.’

Suddenly he looked distracted. He looked behind him, and then turned back to us. ‘Well, look around. Take what you like. Let me know if I can help.’

He wandered to the back of the room where he was working and we looked about, picking up brochures and discussing our touristy plans.

Pic of Que Pasa Magazine

Very important!

Soon he was back. ‘You have this magazine?’ he asked, holding up a copy of Que Pasa! the Puerto Rican travel magazine. ‘Here, take it. This is very important!’

‘Thanks,’ said Axel, before asking ‘We want to go to the observatory. Do you think that we should rent a car or take a tour?’

‘A car is much better for you. There is so much to see!’ He rattled off a list of sights – more than we could ever see in our 4 days on the island. ‘Others I would tell differently. Americans, you know. They don’t care.’

He looked out the window, distracted again. ‘Are you going to look around the city?’

Before we could answer he had decided. ‘Come, I will walk with you to the fort.’

My stomach grumbled and I thought wistfully of my cheesy pizza. The draw of this man, however, and his steamroller discourse was too strong. We nodded our consent  and followed meekly as he locked the store and started walking up the hill.

San Sebastian Street

San Sebastian Street

The conversation meandered here and there. I remained silent. I looked on in wonder at this man. Self-propelled, moving and thinking, always two steps ahead of me and my slow thoughtfulness. We walked and he pointed out stores we should visit, and San Sebastien, ‘the most beautiful street in San Juan.’

He soon moved on to a topic that was obviously on his mind. ‘You know, many Puerto Ricans are not happy about Bin Laden. We were occupied by the U.S you know. We do not always agree. Bin Laden. Before he killed Russians – he wasn’t a terrorist then. Now it is different. And you know, we are not like the Americans. We are more the Greenpeace type, like you.’ He smiled in my direction.

There was a lull in the conversation. ‘We are pretty distant from all that since we have been traveling,’ I say, just to fill the silence. This is not exactly true, but I didn’t have the words to explain what I felt to such a new aqquaintance.

We then talked of simpler things, and it came up that I had lived in the states. ‘Did you like it there?’ he asked, and waited expectantly for my answer.

I thought. There were so many answers to that question. The US is a land of extremes. There is much to like and much to dislike. ‘I got used to it after some years,’ I ventured, realizing I had thought for too long. ‘I liked it.’

He looked at me and I got the feeling that he had wanted a different answer. ‘Yes, for you it is fine. You look white. When you walk the streets, they will treat you differently, you know.’

:: I know.

We had reached the top of the hill and our new friend took the time to make sure we knew how to get to the fort El Morro. ‘You just walk up here, it’s on the right. Do you need a ride? My car is just over there. You won’t have time to get to the other fort. They close at 6pm. San Cristóbal is over there.’

We nodded.

‘Will you come to San Juan tomorrow? Come tomorrow and you can visit San Cristóbal, then walk around the town.’

taj mahal

One of the many places I haven't seen

He talked some more, telling us of his travels. He kept asking if we had visited places I had never heard of…Have you seen to the Taj Mahal in India? Have you visited the mountains in Slovakia? Do you know so-and-so city Croatia? No, we answered. No, no, no. We haven’t seen the Taj Mahal, or the mountains, or the city. As much as I have travelled, talking to this man I felt like I hadn’t seen enough.

Shortly before we parted ways the conversation turned once again towards a topic close to his heart  ‘I am fighting right now for custody over my kids, you know. There is good and bad. You can’t have everything good.’

We nodded. He asked again, ‘Can I give you a ride? My car is not far…’

‘No no, we can walk.’

We waved goodbye as he carried on his way. After he left we considered walking back to the city center to find food, but inexplicably (to someone who loves food as much as I do) I found that my hunger was not as important as I’d imagined.

Waking to the fort, we talked about visiting the tourist center the next day to say hello. But life moves on and other things came up. We never made it back to the tourist center, but I will hold on to the memory of our wonderful Puerto-Rican guide and his views on the world.

El Morro
Path to El Morro

Note: if you have the time or inclination, please give me feedback on my writing. I’m not happy with it and would love to hear your feedback…tips for improvement are more than welcome!