Sunday, December 29, 2013

4,528 Miles from Home

And now we'll dispense with the random contemplation of life's little questions and return to straight up travel journaling.  Lots of boring logistics to follow!

As the crow flies, I am 4,528 miles from home experiencing that most desirable of traveling moments, the exquisite relief when you are comfortable and safe after a long period of uncertainty and energetic exertions.  Currently, I am situated in the common room of the Riad Idrissy, which is run by an bustling young guy who was simultaneously managing the attached restaurant.  Getting checked in was a little bit of an exercise in embracing the random abstract that is also expressed physically by the way that the streets are arranged here.  I arrived at about four, and
the host in the restaurant sent someone to tell Robert that I arrived.  He then offered me the option of having a seat and a beverage while I waited for Robert, so I seated myself in the open air cafe for a cup of tea.  The cafe is located in the "Ruined Garden", which is the central feature of the Riad at which I am staying.  After a bit a youngish Anglo whizzed by, and I presumed that he was the mysterious Robert with whom I had booked my stay over the internet.  The Riad was recommended in a CNN travel blog, and it did not steer me wrong.  After a few moments I heard Robert exclaim, "Oh, it's Michael," which I assumed to be me, and a few moments after that he came over to introduce himself.  Nothing happens immediately here.  He explained that he had thought that someone was inquiring about a room and that he was going to have to send them away, thus he was quite delighted to discover that it was me as I had a reservation.  I didn't ask, but I wonder if he just assumed that I was Michael because I was a middle aged Anglo or if he had done the homework to google he might do routinely given the international nature of his guests...whatever the cause it was completely welcoming to be identified in such a way.

He informed me that the room was being prepared and would be ready soon, so he got me a menu and wandered off to attend to an assortment of tasks as he flitted about the place.  The room was ready pretty quickly, but by this point I had been sitting and smelling an amazing banquet of flavors emanating from the open air kitchen just twenty feet or so from where I sat.  Dinner first.  And the internet.  By the time I had finished enjoying my brothy meal of Artichokes, Carrots, Potatoes and light spices I had uploaded my travel pictures and Robert had provided a map and outlined a wide range of possible entertainments for my several days in Fez.  I also have at this point the possibility of tagging along with Amine, whom I met on the train, so we'll see how that plays out.  Time to find the room.  I was getting a little chilled out in the garden, as I had only brought short sleeve shirts and it is winter here, after all.

Into the Riad, up the stairs and through an old wooden door that looks as if it was the cupboard door from some old manor or other.  No card key - no key at all.  Just an old fashioned lift latch.  Ah, but what a room.  All charm and comfort without even the smallest hint of hotel.  A carafe of drinking water and glass, gauzy curtains around the foot the bed, an old clothes cabinet and a bathroom that somehow manages to offer both modern conveniences while looking like it was carved out of sandstone.  The towel rack warms the towels!  The room has two windows that overlook the large common area, which has its own fountain, so there is a constant sound of water flowing to which I am looking forward to falling asleep.  The windows can be partially shut for privacy by closing ornately decorated wooden shutters. This arrangement explains the name of the room, which is The Mezzanine.  The room also includes a Moroccan Djellaba, which is a long robe with a hood.  Apparently these were traditionally wool, but are now made in a lighter range of textiles including cotton.  In any event, as I had not brought a long sleeve shirt, I was really pleased that this was in the room.  In short order I was out of my jeans and button up shirt and into my comfy clothes covered by my Djellaba.  There were also slippers, but they were made for much smaller feet than mine!  In addition to being visually overwhelmed by fabric and wood and actual craftsmanship, there was in the air a mixture of cooking and wood fire that makes the senses continuously peer about to see what the hell is going on.

All of that is to sum up the current state of affairs; a circumstance in which I am completely and enthusiastically comfortable after having spent about seventy-two hours on trains, planes, automobiles AND a bus to get here.  It has been an exhausting and yet intriguing journey.  Here are a few highlights.

I left St Peter Thursday morning in Katie's car.  I was actually kind of nervous.  She and Mike graciously trooped down and hauled me to the airport, which I arrived at uncharacteristically early for my flight.  I wasn't sure if the 26th would
be a busy travel day or not, but it turns out that the answer is, "not".  Lots of time to get a bowl of soup and enjoy saying goodbye to subzero temperatures.

It can be work to stay entertained on long flights.  The flight to Philadelphia was uneventful, and after a very short turnaround I was on the international flight to Madrid.  This was my first international flight and so everything about it managed to capture my imagination.  The flight left at around 6:50 and was scheduled to arrive in Madrid at 8:30, which after adjusting for the time change is a little over seven hours; however, the woman seated next to me announced that flying time would be just a bit over six hours, and this was confirmed by computer screen in front of me after we departed.  Sure enough, we hit the ground in Madrid at 7:30, fully an hour ahead of schedule.  Gotta like a tail wind.  The in flight meals were serviceable, and dinner came with wine...although had I known that the "diet" coke in Europe is a strange affair that tastes more like regular coke I might have had a final, real diet coke.  I do like my diet coke.

Using the small screen in the seat back in front of my face, I watched "Fight Club" during the flight, which I had never actually seen in its entirety.  Fascinating film.  I think I might need to see it again.  Then I discovered that I could play poker so that entertained me for a bit.  I tried to doze, but since my home time was still just barely past midnight I wasn't very successful.  Adjusting to a large time change is a challenge and I decided that since I would arrive early in the morning Madrid time that the best thing to do would be to just push on and try and make it through the day without really sleeping.  My theory was that I would then sleep a regular night's sleep on Friday night local time.  It mostly worked.

Arriving in Madrid began the unsettling and constant circumstance in which no one around me is speaking a language that I can understand.  Although the world is doing a remarkable job of providing signage that includes multiple languages as well as a range of symbols that allow some guesswork to take place, a good deal of the time I am not sure how to get where I am trying to go and even if I have already arrived.  A smarter traveler would have this all worked out with maps and detailed information about their journey, but I had somewhat intentionally left much of what I was doing a bit vague.  A fun moment, for instance, was when on the train today Amine asked me which train station I was destined for in Fez, to which I replied that I had no idea!  This challenge has, fortunately, increased over this journey...and I say fortunately because it was nice that the first couple of segments were those with the most clarity.

The easiest of the travel segments was the Metro in Madrid.  I had copied detailed instructions for taking the Metro from the airport to the train station, and the Metro was clearly marked with lots of information about the available stops and how to proceed.  I couldn't make my credit cards work in the ticket kiosk, but having exchanged some cash for Euros I soon had my Metro ticket in hand and, backpack secured, off I went to take the three lines I would need to ride to reach the train station.  The Metro was awesome.  Clean, efficient, and since it was a holiday week it was pretty quiet.  An attractive young woman on my first car proceeded to take the same route that I did.  I probably looked like a stalker since there weren't that many of us riding in the first place.  Oh, well!

The functional section of the train station in Madrid is very much like Grand Central in New York.  There is a confusing assembly of levels throughout which the various functions of the train service is distributed.  There is a large atrium area attached to the functional sections and the atrium is filled with a strange combination of tacky tourist sales booths and an attempt at a tropical setting.  The room is not heated very well, if at all, so it was a cold and dreary kind of space on this cloudy winter day.

Now the creeping anxiety of uncertainty began to work its way into my psyche.  I was to take the high speed train from Madrid to Cadiz, which I knew would be my most expensive journey and also had the potential to be sold out.  I had not purchased in advance as I wasn't sure when I would get to the train station and didn't want to lock in a knows what I might find when I finally reached a ticket counter.  Of course, first I had to figure out how to find a ticket counter!

This is also the moment when I needed to start interacting with people.  Getting out of the airport and onto the metro had been pretty manageable using the great signage that was provided, but that was no longer the case.  Now that I was at the train depot, I was finding that very few people spoke much English and that my attempts to acquire a handful of Spanish words had not really gotten me very far.  At the last minute, realizing that my language work was not going to cut it, I had downloaded an app to my phone that has been pretty useful, but mostly it lets me look and see what I should have said if I had known what to say when I needed to have said it.  The moment is usually gone by then.  In some ways, it's not really useful to offer up a word or two in Spanish as it just encourages people to assume you have some idea of what they are talking about and they launch into Spanish with more gusto.  I've also had the amusing experience of having someone repeat the same word in Spanish over and over even though I am clearly staring at them like I wish to God I knew what it meant but no amount of repetition is likely to get us there.  On the other hand, this process of having a language encounter, and then deconstructing it with the app to figure out what I might have said does seem to be helping me to build some kind of competency.  Although I'm in Morocco now, where French and Arabic are the primary languages, I'm looking forward to getting back to Spain on Wednesday or Thursday and trying to gain more ground in this battle to communicate.

I found the ticket office without trouble, and walked in to find bunches of people standing around in what was clearly not a queue.  There is a line of ticket windows and several were open and were serving customers, but I couldn't tell how one got to be one of those customers.  I couldn't see anything that looked like instructions, and meandered a bit until I started to notice that several people were clutching little pieces of paper with a number on it.  Ah, ha!  I needed to get a number.  Now, how to do it.  Patience.  Patience.  There it is.  Watch and learn is what it's all about.  When in doubt copy someone else.  Of course, you have to hope that they are doing what you need to be doing.  I got my slip of paper and after waiting around a bit secured my train ticket to Cadiz, which I had been mis-pronouncing.

I had about two hours to kill before the train was supposed to leave, or at least that was what I thought.  Eventually I would learn that when the ticket said 12:27, that was not the time of departure, that was the date.  I spent most of the next several hours being very confused.  No one was able to explain anything to me in English, and I was sent to various locations repeatedly primarily because the first person I showed my ticket to was confused and sent me to the wrong place.  Thus proceeded the completely entertaining process of showing my ticket to folks who worked for Renfe and having them say words that I didn't understand and point me back to where I started.  Finally, the gatekeeper was replaced by a new person, who waved me into the promised land when I showed her my ticket.  Mind you, all of this happened in a state of numb exhaustion and in a train station that really didn't have any place to sit and wait until you got past the gatekeeper.  Once I did get into the waiting area I tried to get on the wrong train (again based on poor advice from folks who looked at my ticket).

Eventually I was on the train to Cadiz.  My car was filled with noisy children, so eventually I moved to the next car and enjoyed a quieter, calmer ride.  Food here is an entirely different experience.  Imagine what you might expect on an Amtrak train or any snack bar if you got a ham and cheese sandwich.  A sandwich on a Renfe train, on the other hand, involves a tasty baguette with prosciutto and a tasty zesty in real cheese.

Enough for now.  Tomorrow I will post adventures in Cadiz and Tangier before heading out to discover the Fez Medina!

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