Friday, June 25, 2010

Keeping it Cool in Cordoba and Sassy in Sevilla

I’ve been in Granada for just over two weeks and given the size of the city and the number of hours in the day I have for wandering the town, I’ve started feeling a little claustrophobic. I mean, it’s no Williams, but as Spain’s 17th largest city, there’s not much to keep you occupied if you’re a total spazz like me who finds lying around in parks for hours on end and leisurely walks by the river stressful. I decided to take a little “break” from all my “work” and head off to Córdoba and Sevilla for two days for a whirlwind tour of the other two mainstays in the Andalusian triumvirate. I headed out to Cordoba on a 7:30AM bus, getting there just after 10. I spent the morning and afternoon wandering the streets of the Judería (the old Jewish quarter), visiting the Mezquita-Catedral, the Roman bridge and the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos. It would have been a pleasant visit had it not been for the unbearable heat that descends on the city every afternoon (I’ve been spoilt by Granada’s strategic position at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that keeps it cool). I walked around panting and sweating like an old dog, finally thrilled when I was the air-conditioned train to Sevilla.

Sevilla. Oh Sevilla. Say it with me now: Se-beeh-jsya (forget that anglicized Seville nonsense). Sevilla is one big ball of sass. It’s a city with spunk: the clickity-clack of Sevillanas’ high-heels, the iridescent brightness of the afternoon sun and the Guadilquivir river curving around fountains, bullrings and palm trees. It suffers from the same intense heat of Cordoba, but even in the short 26 hours I was in city, I realized that this was a town that packs a punch. I enjoyed sitting in the unexpected squares of Barrio Santa Cruz as much as I loved walking by the whizzing trams of the city center, popping into Starbucks to cure a bout of homesickness and stopping off at a 4-storey FNAC where the Dreamgirls DVD was on sale for 7 euro (way to undervalue your merchandise… but hey, I’m not complaining). Though Sevilla has two H&M stores within walking distance of each other, the city retains a distinctive character and it was that perfect blend of the Andalusian with the international (it is, after all, Spain’s fourth largest city after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia) that I found strangely comforting after being alone in this province what seems like a lifetime.

But I’m back in Granada now and there are 10 days left to go. My best friend from school and her brother are visiting me for a week (they get in tonight) and I’m so ready to be tour guide. I’m also ready for a week of pure, hedonistic Spanish joie-de-vivre. There are only so many nights I can fall asleep while watching The Simpsons in Spanish.

P.S. Photos from Morocco are up on Flickr for your viewing pleasure. Marrakech and Fez/Meknes/Volubilis/Meknes are found in two separate streams.

P.S. Watched the season finale of Glee yesterday night curled up in bed in my PJs. Some joys are accessible everywhere.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Getting Into the Granada Groove

Granada, I've spent this past week getting to know you a little, strolling along the river Darro, climbing the streets of the Albaicin and smelling the flowers of the gardens of the Alhambra. I’ve fallen asleep under the Andalusian sun with only an orange tree for shade and I’ve watched your people go by while sipping on summer wine. I’ve also tripped on your cobblestones. Like, twice in day, in fact.

This experience has been a real gift, not only for the opportunity to spend time in beautiful places but also for a chance to really reflect and gain some perspective. One thing I didn’t appreciate enough before I embarked on this project was what a solitary experience it would be. It’s especially true now that I’m holding down an apartment all by myself in a quiet neighborhood, cooking, doing the dishes … cleaning? But it was also true of my time in Morocco though hostels meant a very social lifestyle. Rather than keeping me content with company, I found it frustrating how I felt like I was meeting great people all the time but they were always headed to Barcelona when I was staying on in Marrakech, or I was moving to Madrid when they had to go to Marseille. The transience of these relationships made me only more lonesome. The amount of time I’ve had to myself and to my thoughts is not something I anticipated but it has been such a rewarding experience to get some distance from my life and really interrogate myself a little. I’m finding things out about myself I didn’t expect to discover… (Talk to me later about specifics; I’m not about to get all emotional over a blog). It’s weird: being alone is kind of like being locked in a room with someone you’ve been a little uncomfortable with for a long time, with nowhere to run. All you can do is talk things out with them and iron out all the beef.

On a lighter, less confessional note: a movie festival is going on around town and I got to catch a screening of the Bollywood movie ‘Kurbaan’ out on Plaza de Pasiegas with the screen dropping down in front of the imposing façade of Granada’s main cathedral. What a disorienting experience. And what an awful movie.

Also, another thing I didn’t anticipate: how my very rusty Spanish, learned with a typical

Madrileño accent, is floundering in face of people talking at me in rapid-fire Andalusian Spanish where consonants seem to have all but disappeared. Most often, I’m just standing there, going like “What the…?” And then I just say, “Con chocolate” because usually I just want something with chocolate in it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mad About Madrid

Apparently free WiFi is not cool in Spain.

It’s been five days since I landed in here in España, the land of Rioja, tapas and ‘el buen tiempo’. The double entendre of ‘buen tiempo’ (which can mean both ‘good times’ and ‘good weather’) is not to be missed, since it rained almost the entire time I was in Madrid. You didn’t see me crying, because I was indoors in museums for most of my stay there anyy. And boy, do you need your museum cap on in Madrid. The Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia are all cornerstone institutions in the world of Western art – and all within walking distance of each other, too. Not to mention the new CaixaForum, an art space designed by Herzog & DeMeuron (drooooool…) that houses provocative temporary exhibitions: this place, along with the Reina Sofia, is putting Madrid on the global map of cool (move over, Barcelona, what makes you think you’re so special?).

Madrid is a luxurious breath of fresh air after the labyrinthine souks of Morocco. No, really, the city actually smells beautiful wherever you go. I don’t know what it is, but it’s delightful. Madrid is grand and majestic and on my last night there, I felt like a veritable Carrie Bradshaw as I giddily sauntered down Calle de Alcala, heading back to my pension from the slice-of-heaven Mercado San Miguel pleasantly full with croquetas de gamba, tostadas con bacalao and manchego cheese and a little happy from the one glass of Crianza (shut up). Holding two shopping bags in my hand, one filled with candy and the other with the cutest t-shirt I’ve ever seen, I felt like I was perfectly emulating the many solo strolls Sex and the City’s star takes through the streets of Manhattan (hey, we can’t all by strutting around with Manolos and Dolce & Gabbana bags, so I say the comparison still holds).

I’ve been in Granada less than two days now and I feel like I’ve already left a part of myself here. My dungeon-like apartment, tucked away in a quiet corner of the El Realojo neighborhood (the old Jewish quarter, just a couple of minutes downhill from the Alhambra), is my little nest. The happiest moment of my trip so far might have been when I ran out to the tiny supermarket off Campo del Principe, a delightful little square around which the barrio radiates, bringing back a loaf of bread, a hunk of blue cheese, figs and a bottle of wine for dinner. Walking past the whitewashed houses with flowers hanging from their balconies, glorious vistas of the city peeking through the narrow ends of streets, I felt like this was finally it.

Of course, it hasn’t all been fun and games. There’s been the project I’m supposed to be taking care of. Ah, yes, the project. I’m here on a project. I forgot about that for a second. It’s just been hard trying to figure out where to begin. Stimuli abound: Granada is filled with references to its Moorish legacy, surprising me with their presence at every turn. There are old Arab gates and archways, instances of Islamic calligraphy and of course, the ever-present Alhambra serves as a constant reminder of Granada’s roots. I’ve run into North African immigrants who own stores that sell the exact same babouches and leather pouffes I saw in Fez. There are tiny stalls with names like “Marrakech” and “Medina” selling hookahs and magnets of flamenco dancers. So what now? Do I make an effort to talk to people? Or do I just continue to observe? I am hoping that these are all things that clear themselves up with time and adjustment. (I have to keep on reminding myself that it hasn’t even been 48 hours).

So for now, I continue to take in Andalucia with its endless assortment of tapas and its resplendent sunlight. It gets lonely sometimes in my apartment, but that’s when a little blast of Katy Perry comes in handy.

PS. Running into Dave Marsh in Fez was hilarious. As I hurried past the hawkers on my way to Bab Boujloud, I hear “Saytay?!”. Funny, I think to myself, seems like someone has a name that sounds a lot like Saytay. When I turn around, I see an incredulous Dave Marsh. In the following seconds, there was an incredulous me in turn. The world is too small for its own good. From Williamstown to Fez: who woulda thunk?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Volubilis Verve and Mellow Meknes

I've met so many awesome people in the past two weeks. As much as I'm going to miss Morocco for all its madness, I think the one thing I'll miss the most while I'm sitting alone in my Andalusian apartment is talking to all the different people who make their way through this maze of a nation. They're especially great for three things:
a) splitting cab fares
b) going out for a drink
c) adventures.
Most memorable adventure so far: hiking down the hill overlooking Fes in flip-flops, led by two friends I had met in Marrakech. One of them was Australian. I should've known he'd get me into trouble. It must have been a funny sight for the two Fassis who spotted us from the road on
the verge of toppling down a precipice: two Taiwanese girls, a pro-outdoorsy Aussie, a pretty Brit and one very skeptical subcontinental guy taking the really long way back to the medina. One of the nice local men had to pull me across a ledge over onto a rock before I could make the descent (please don't tell my parents). It was an experience, to say the least. We headed straight for the bar once we had planted our feet on level ground -- fun times.

Yesterday, my newly found Malaysian friend and I made the trek to the ancient ruins of
Volubilis, followed by a stop at the pilgrimage site of Moulay Idriss and the quiet town of Meknes, Fez's littler sister. What a trip! 45 minutes on a train and a total of 2 and a half hours in car + three different sites + midday heat = one pooped little Indian man in Morocco.
But the splendor of Volubilis (Oualili in Arabic) and the cuteness of Moulay Idriss made up for it.

I'm spending the last two days in Fes wandering the medina and keeping fastidious notes. One thought: bargaining in the markets here is really testing the limits of my sass -- but really, there's been plenty to go around. 60 dirhams for those shoes? Puh-lease, monsieur, a blind feral cat with arthritis could sew up those stitches better.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fes Frenzy

Finally in Fès. The Moroccan railway has thus far proved to be really convenient but we somehow magically lost an hour on the way from Marrakech to Fes. When the journey is supposed to seven hours-long to begin with, that extra hour makes all the difference in transforming yaySaytay into naySaytay.
Once I found myself cozied up in the riad I'm staying at here (run by a delightful, young and pregnant Brit), I immediately started making plans to stay
in Fes longer, decreasing my visit to Meknès to potentially just a day-trip. I'm so inspired by all the backpackers I'm meeting who change their itineraries at a moment's notice in search what's cheapest and most convenient. And Fes my dears is CHEAP (my ginormous sandwich was 15 dirhams -- just over $1.50).

I've befriended two Taiwanese girls at the riad who were utterly wooed by the fact that Wang Leehom and I are practically biffs... well, actually, they didn't seem too fazed and said that there are better singers out there than Leehom, but whatever. We've been discovering this crazy world together: donkeys, loud men, hustlers, touts, winding streets that make no sense. It's like being in some sort of time warp...

...except that I was told today that I was obviously American because I had a visage à l'Obama. That was weird, to say the least given that
a) the only thing American about me is potentially my accent. And even then I say lots of things funny. Does anyone want a bluebrrryyy?
b) I'd like to think I look nothing like Obama. Since when did Mr. President have sexy stubble?

I was also told by a man whose only contact with the subcontinent was an extensive rapport with Bollywood film that he and I were exactly the same since Morocco and India are two countries plagued by the same troubles. Scary thought. Also, I don't want to be a 70 year-old Fassi man who drinks mint tea all day outside a leather workshop. Although I must say his choice in shoes, just like most Moroccans, is rather fab -- good job, old chap, those bright yellow babouches are so in right now.