Mardi Gras

Well this year’s Fat Tuesday was a success! I of course began by brainstorming something good to do for lent. Nische and I talked about it, and later I discussed it with Nola; I think we all have some pretty great things. Nische has committed to reading the entire Old Testament by Easter, which averages to a chapter a day; she has to read it for her class anyway, but she would be finished a couple of weeks early. Nola decided to abstain from gluttonous eating after a night of drinking. I gave up two things: elevators and my snooze button. Science shows that going back to sleep after your alarm decreases your overall energy level, and stairs are always a great way to work in some cardio.
So Tuesday night Nola and I went Pool & Beer, had a great time discussing some of our travel plans, then afterwards she went an excellent burrito bar nearby to have quite an amazing midnight snack. It is a little expensive, but so delicious, and it was her Fat Tuesday! I was a little disappointed because this place is the one that sells cheap Budweiser, but the manager said I couldn’t get one to go because the bottle was not disposable; I did, however, discover that they also serve Hefeweizen, so I was content. When I got back to my apartment, I made sure to savor my ride in the elevator. Now I know I technically should have slept in on Tuesday, but I hadn’t thought of it yet, plus I had to get up early to finish some homework before class that morning. Alternatively, on Wednesday I didn’t have anything I really had to get done before my class at 5:30. Furthermore, I’ll have to get up extra early on Easter to go with Bomi to the airport, so it just made sense to push it back a day.
Anyway, it’s going pretty well so far. I got right out of bed this morning with relative ease, so hopefully that continues. The stairs on the other hand have been a bit more challenging. I’m all the way on the sixth floor, and I definitely break a sweat on the climb. I did it three time yesterday and twice today, and I can definitely feel it. By Easter I’m going to have legs and lungs of steel though, which I’m sure will come in handy while backpacking around Europe :)

Fat Tuesday was fun while it lasted, but unfortunately much of this weekend will be spent working hard, as next week I have my translation midterm and first poetry essay. I took a couple of pictures on my stroll in the park this afternoon because it was finally sunny again!

El trabajo, El juego, y El Carnival

Well this past week has been a hectic mixture of work and play. On Monday, I had my appointment at the police station to apply for my replacement residency card, and of course, nothing there can ever be easy. This time, I was much to blame for the complications though. So first of all, although I had been there before, on this day I was going there from somewhere different, and it didn’t turn out so well. I guess I took the wrong line because I was on the metro for over an hour, and as soon as I arrived at the station I knew I was in the wrong place. The road that the police station is on wasn’t too far away, so I figured I could find it then just follow it until I recognized my surroundings. This idea was easier thought than executed though. After asking about three people I finally found the right street, but then I ended up following it for at least an hour and a half to no avail. It eventually seemed to just sort of end, and I still had no idea where I was. I found a metro station and decided to cut my losses and make another appointment, because by now my time slot had long since passed. As I examined the metro map to find my way home however, I suddenly spotted the stop I knew I needed to get to for the police station. Why I couldn’t have done that in the first place, I don’t know. Anyway, I figured since I was already out, I might as well try it, so I rode for another half hour or so until I reached the familiar stop.

I arrived to the police station about two hours late, but it was pretty empty so they didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. I couldn’t believe my luck! That euphoria soon faded as the clerk went through all of my documents then informed me that I needed a police report. I smiled, politely looked through the documents she had discarded, and showed her the police report I had gotten over break. She read it, frowned, then asked me what it was and where I had done it. The report clearly said Highland, Illinois, but I guess I can’t blame her for not knowing where that is. Anyway, she went on to inform me that I needed a report in Spanish issued by the Spanish government. My spirits fell, but I was happy that I had made it there that day, as there was now going to be another whole step. Fortunately though, it turned out that I could get it done then and there, so she told me to go take care of it upstairs, then to come back down. I got excited that I would be able to complete it that day after all, but the report was an ordeal of its own. I found the office and explained my situation to the man behind the window. He gave me an appointment slip then told me to go across to the waiting room, ask who the last person in line to file a report is, then my time would be after that person. I guess I looked a little a confused, because he asked if I had understood him, but I just nodded and went to the waiting room.
Contrary to his instructions, I just found an empty chair and sat down; I figured I could eventually ascertain who the last person was through process of elimination anyway. The room was packed full of people, some of which had apparently been waiting there for almost two hours! It was clear who they were, because they all spoke to each other as if they had been long time friends. When someone would exit the office, they would let out a triumphant cheer, the people waiting would congratulate them, and then the whole room would chorus hasta luego as the person left. When a new person entered they would immediately ask who the last person in line was, so after a while I kind of felt weird for not doing that, but they all seemed to regard me kindly anyway. My wait did end up taking close to two hours, but I used that time to catch up on some course reading and organize my schedule, so it wasn’t that bad. When it was finally my turn, I was called back into the office, where a quite attractive young officer took my information, printed out the form, and sent me on my way in less than five minutes.

Back downstairs I had to wait in line for a while to get to another clerk and when I finally did, the young man announced that I also needed a photo copy of the police report, which I could do outside. I didn’t mean to because I know it wasn’t his fault, but I reflexively shot him and exasperated glare. When he saw I had made the report at that location though, he was able to pull it up and print it out himself. I made sure to articulate my gratitude as well as I could. Afterwards, he took my fingerprints then sent me on my way! When I had embarked on this adventure at 10:30 that morning, I never imagined that I would have trouble making it to my 5:30 class, but I ended up arriving about 15 minutes late. I spoke to my professor after afterwards though and he seemed to understand all too well how those things go; he said that ultimately the most important thing was that I had gotten everything sorted out.

I took some time to decompress after class, and overall I felt very accomplished. Then after dinner I was reminded that I had agreed to help my roommate, Nische, with one of her assignments. So there’s this bar, Pool & Beer, that’s exactly half a block away from Nola and I, so we end up there a lot. It has a great atmosphere, everyone is really nice, and they serve some really great beers; they even have Franziskaner, my all-time favorite brew! Not to mention if we sit there long enough they usually end up giving us a free shot. Two nights a week they host a language exchange where native Spanish speakers can practice their English with native speakers and vice versa. Ever since we started going there, the bartender noticed us speaking English and had been encouraging us to come. So for her journalism class Nische was supposed to attend such an exchange and interview three people about the process of learning English. Nola and I agreed to accompany here because Nische had never been there and doesn’t speak any Spanish. We ordered a round, and by the time we were had almost finished nothing had gotten accomplished, so I took initiative. I walked up to a boy and girl seated nearby who looked to be about our age, and asked them for an interview. The girl said she knew some English, but would prefer to do it in Spanish so we proceeded as such. Nische would feed me questions, then after listening to the girl’s response I would relay it back to Nische. Of course I didn’t speak perfectly, but I got my point across and understood virtually everything the girl told me! It was super encouraging and I really enjoyed it! Over the course of the night I ended up interviewing two more people and it went so well! I’m a great roommate, I know.

The rest of week was mostly spent trying to stay on top of reading and making travel arrangements! Nola and I booked our flights to Rome and Dublin, and we have currently booked hostels in Lisbon, Dublin, Brussels, Prague, Berlin, and Rome! Now we just need one for Madrid before we leave for spring break and we need to book the trip to Southern Spain, but we definitely accomplished a lot. On Thursday we went out again and of course eventually ended up back at Pool & Beer. Then of course when the night was coming to a close, we had to walk down to our favorite pizza shop. I know I’ve said before that the pizza here isn’t that great, but this one place serves some of the most amazing four cheese pizza I’ve ever had. The best part is that they’re open 24 hours. Anyway, we were feeling quite content as Nola entered her apartment. I was about a block away from mine, but on my way I happened to pass two young men on the side walk. We initiated conversation, and it turned they had also just come from Pool & Beer and they both work at a nearby restaurant we frequent. One of them was from Peru, and I don’t remember where the other one was from but it was somewhere in South America. We talked for a very long time and argued about the similarities and differences between Castilian Spanish and American Spanish. Eventually they asked if I wanted to go to a bar a couple of blocks away and I agreed, but it turned out to be closed anyway. We sat outside talking for even longer, and it was like I was actually hanging out with friends! That might not seem so incredible, but it was entirely in Spanish and I was able to keep and participate effectively.

On Friday night Nola was desperate to try somewhere new, so we finally made it to the Cave Bar. Like it sounds, the whole interior of this place is made to look like a cave and it was actually really cool. We ordered their signature drink, which translates to “panther milk” and is partially served on tap from a stalactite. It was pretty overpriced and super disgusting, but at least we tried it I guess. I’m sure you can discern where we went afterwards, and we eventually ended at Nola’s apartment because her host family apparently goes out of town every weekend. We watched Pride and Prejudice because I had never seen and its one of her favorite movies. It was pretty good so I guess I’ll have to add it to my book bucket list.

Saturday was the festival for Carnival, which is basically the Spanish equivalent to Mardi Gras. It was a little different here than it is in Soulard, but somewhat similar too. Pretty much everyone dresses up in ridiculous costumes and parties in the streets. There was a parade at 6:00 and it was very interesting. I think anyone is free to enter, so there were some diverse groups that were all dressed in elaborate costume and mostly danced or did some other kind of trick. There were a couple floats, but not many. There were also groups from different countries that would wear their traditional clothing and dance to traditional music, so that was really cool. Madrid is not exactly notorious for its Carnival celebration, but it was a good time nonetheless. Anyway, with such an eventful week behind me and so many exciting things to come, I promised myself I would devote today to course work. I haven’t started yet, but the day is still relatively young so, you know, I will…

 

Bienvenidos Otra Vez

Well I officially made it back to Madrid, which was something that I had been little uncertain about. So I’m not exactly sure what happened, but somehow on my last night in Madrid before break I lost possession of my wallet. All I know is that when I woke up the next morning, late I might add, that I didn’t have it. It wouldn’t have been that big of deal because it was easy to cancel my cards and get a new license, but I also lost my Spanish residency card. As in, the card that I spent like six months working to get! For that reason I was a little worried that I would be stopped in Munich from boarding the flight to Madrid. I was told that as long I had a police report and my passport I should be good, but the people in Student Life didn’t seem all that confident. Anyway, the immigration people in Munich just stamped my passport without so much as even asking what I was doing there (they had been much more thorough in Frankfurt on the way to Chicago). Then in Madrid I literally walked off the plane and went straight to baggage claim! After that I considered just not bothering to get a new one, but alas my incessant wanderlust got the best of me; I couldn’t bear the thought of not going somewhere for fear of being detained at the border, though I do think deportation would be a valuable life experience. Anyway, I’ve been going through the process of getting all my documents in order, and my appointment to apply is tomorrow, which means I’ll have to go all the way back out to that police station in the middle of nowhere. I just hope all it goes off without a problem.

So far this semester has been going surprisingly well. I like my classes much more that I thought I would, but the workload is already somewhat intense. I feel like I’m learning a lot though, so I guess that’s the point. It turns out that analyzing poetry is more enjoyable than I remembered, and class has actually been pretty interesting. I had to read an entire novel last week for my literature class, and it was not good. Though I still have much to learn, I notice that my Spanish literacy skills are definitely improving. Hopefully the next book will be better, but this week of class will be spent watching the movie of the last book, so we’ll see when I actually get around to starting it. My translation class is pretty much how I expected, and I love it. Every week we have to translate about a page of text from a variety of sources. It seems like we are mostly doing fictional literature, and it’s pretty interesting. Last week we had to do the begging of Pride and Prejudice though and it was pretty tough. I’ve skimmed through the course packet and I’m especially excited to do the Goblet of Fire and The Catcher in the Rye! Anyway, the following class is then used to go over the article and discern the correct translation. Its ridiculously arduous, and most of the time we just debate about the true meaning of a certain word in context and which word in Spanish best expresses that idea. We literally spend the whole hour and a half going over like one paragraph, but it’s pretty fun.

To balance my sense of despair after reading through my syllabi, I’ve started to plan my next adventures for this semester. I’m especially excited for spring break. My friend Bomi is coming to visit from the US and we recently book our tickets to go to Brussels, Prague, and Berlin! Nola and I have also booked tickets to go to Lisbon at the end of February and on a three day tour around the major cities in the south of Spain mid-March. We are very close to getting a flight to Dublin in April, but we’re still figuring out the best dates. We’ve also talked about going to Florence, which I would love to do, but for whatever reason it’s super expensive, so we might go to Rome instead. We’ll see. It’s going to be the busiest semester, but I figure I might as well use my youth (and life savings) to the best of its ability while I still have it.

Being back in Madrid has been pretty cool too I guess. Nola moved host families, so now she literally lives right around the corner from me! We’ve enjoyed exploring new places around the neighborhood, and we’ve even already became regulars at a few. Having a roommate has also been pretty great. Her name is Nische and she’s originally from Poland, but her family moved to Chicago and she’s now a sophomore at SLU. She’s really nice and we’ve bonded pretty well. Fortunately she doesn’t seem to mind my constant singing/humming or random bursts of laughter, and she loves to sleep just as late as I do. It hasn’t been hard sharing the small space either; I actually forgot how much I like having a roommate. We even went out together last night. My cousin had been telling Nola and me about this popular club, so the four of us and a couple of people from school tried it out. It was all techno music, and very different from the other clubs we’ve gone to which mostly play pop and what not. Last night there was a DJ there from Germany, and she was pretty good. The crowd there was interesting to say the least, but we all had a good time. The best part was that it’s located in Sol (though we later learned that it consistently changes locations) so we got to go to that great churro place for breakfast. All and all things here are going very well, and I think this semester is going to be an absolutely amazing albeit exhausting experience.

Los Examines Finales y El Escorial

Well I did it, I finished my first semester of grad school! I have to say, I thought it would be hard going in, but it turned out to be way more challenging than I’d anticipated. It’s over now though, and I can only hope that next semester will be better, but I kind of doubt it. I really have no idea what my grades are at this point, but I’m trying not to really dwell on it because now it’s all out of my hands. I had my composition exam today, and I thought it seemed to go surprisingly well. There were a few small things that I’m pretty sure I missed, but overall I’m more or less confident about it. This professor does tend to be quite the meticulous grader though, so we’ll see. The same goes for my phonetics exam; I feel relatively confident about it, but you just never know. As for literature, well instead of having a final exam we had a final paper. It was a ten page essay about some literary themes in a few of the stories we had read by this one author. Ten pages! That doesn’t sound quite so hard in English, but in Spanish it seemed practically impossible. I don’t think it was quite what she was looking for, but I managed to make it about existentialism, so the ten pages sort of flowed. It ended up being a little bit over in fact!  I was little iffy about it, but she just e-mailed me, and I got an 87! That’s practically an A! I just skimmed her comments on it, but I’m pretty sure the gist is that I still have a long way to go, but I’ve definitely improved my writing. I’ll take that.

On top of all that, I finally got things worked out with administration, so I’m officially registered for my classes next semester! I had a bit of a debacle with the business office, then when it was all cleared up I had even more trouble trying to get the classes I wanted. Today though I was informed that it’s all worked out, and I even got a spot in the class where I was wait listed! Overall things seem to be really be working out. I plan to take a class about Translation, a Spanish Poetry class, and something about literature and film. I’m really looking forward to the translation class…the other two not so much, but at least I’ll be knocking out some required reading.

These past couple of weeks have been a bit all over the place, ranging from extremely stressful to quite fun. Madrid really seems to go all out for Christmas, and the day after Thanksgiving (not that they celebrated that here) the whole downtown was lit up with these brightly colored box things and huge trees in the main plazas. We’ve been having a good time revisiting our favorite places, and some of the staff are really getting to know us. It’s kind of weird to think that so many people will not be returning next semester, but a least a few of them will be.

Last weekend we took a final outing to El Escorial, which is a really big monastery.  Well I think it was also a palace at some point too, but I’m not entirely sure. It was cool to see though, and it only took about an hour and a half to get there by train. I’m disappointed that I never made it Barcelona or Sevilla, but I suppose I still have time. I’ll be staying in the same apartment again next semester, so it will be nice not to have to lug my suitcases around with me during break. Yesterday Beatrice told me that I’ll have a roommate next semester. I’m pretty excited to have another student here, but I’m not sure how we are both going to fit into this room. I mean there are two beds and desks, but we wont even be able to both sit at our desks at the same time. Not to mention the closet…I don’t really have that much stuff, but I feel like its going to be quite a challenge for us to both fit everything in it. Oh well, I guess we are really going to get to know each other. I’m a little confused though, because there is a third bed room. It’s quite small, but I feel like it would be more comfortable for someone to stay there than for us to be both be in one room. Speaking of which, a while back, Beatrice told me that an old friend from Argentina was coming to visit and would be staying with us. I figured she’d meant just for the weekend, but by Monday I assumed it would be the whole week. That was over a month ago though and she’s still here. I don’t mind though, she’s super nice and I like having her around, but it just goes to show that the room is perfectly livable! Maybe Carmen has just moved in for good. Oh well though, I suppose that in the grand scheme of the universe its not really a big deal.

So now to enjoy a small taste of freedom! I have a couple of hours before I go to tutor, so I’ll probably start packing or maybe even take a nap! I have some errands and whatnot to run to tomorrow, then in the evening we’re going out for one last time :'( My travels begin early Friday morning, and its going to be a long day, but it will basically be like I’m traveling back in time. I’m super excited to see everyone at home, and I can’t wait to sleep in my bed and drive my car! Oh and I also can’t wait to eat peanut butter and drink Blue Moon!

London!

So I know it’s taken me a while to post about our adventures in London, but I’ve had quite a hectic week. I only had one quiz and one paper due, but I also had two big projects along with all of the usual stuff so I’ve had virtually no free time! Anyway, London was such an amazing place! I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it totally exceeded whatever I’d imagined.

Our flight was supposed to leave Madrid at 8:30 Thursday night but of course we were delayed, so we didn’t get out until well after 9. The flight was a little under three hours, and, as we begin to prepare for landing, the prevalence of pop culture in England begin to sink in. I mean literally some of my all time favorite bands such as the Beatles, the Smiths, and Pink Floyd came from there, as did many of my favorite actors and other such entertainers. As we deplaned, I was overcome excitement that we were actually there. It wasn’t quite as cold as we had anticipated, but it definitely wasn’t warm. We had booked tickets for an airport bus to take us to some station where we would then catch the train to a stop near our hostel; sounds easy enough, right? Well, as we waited to board the bus, we made conversation with the boy checking tickets, who was extremely nice and quite funny. He informed us that Baker Street, our bus stop where we would catch the train to King’s Cross, had been closed down due to the bum threat. I had no idea that the homeless population in London was so prevalent that they had to close down an entire train station because of it. The whole thing didn’t really make sense, but it was a bit worrisome nonetheless. Anyway, on top of that, the train will have stopped running because it was past midnight, so getting to King’s Cross was looking like more of a challenge. As we were discussing these matters with the boy, people in line started offering input as to what station we should go to and the best way to make it to our final destination. Besides being helpful, they were all making dry jokes and were so friendly. By this point we had picked up a stray young female traveler who was also trying to go to King’s Cross, so we all eventually boarded the bus and hoped for the best.

We were on the bus for about an hour, but we had a pretty good time getting our first look around the area. We were surprised when the bus stopped and the driver announced that we were at the Baker St. station; I guess they got the bums cleared out after all. We got off the bus without a clear idea of where to go next, but the driver was very nice and he pointed us in the direction of the nearest bus stop that would get us to King’s Cross. We of course didn’t have any pounds yet though, so we had to stop by an atm. We found one along the way and I joked with my comrades to be careful with their money since there were apparently so many bums around the area. They all just sort of looked at me because apparently it had been clear to everyone else that the boy had said bomb threat not bum threat, which actually makes way more sense. I guess it just goes to show how easy it is to have miscommunications in countries where they speak your language. Anyway, once we had the correct currency in hand we made our way to the bus, which we found out would be coming in 17 minutes. By this point the cold had completely penetrated our outer layers, so we did our best to stay positive and huddled together in what little shelter we had. When the right bus finally arrived, we climbed aboard only to be informed by the driver that we first needed to buy tickets back at the station. With that we returned to Baker St. and purchased our very own Oyster Cards! We returned to the bus stop and had to wait another 20 minutes before the next bus came. When it finally did, we were super excited to be on our first double decker bus! We eventually made it to King’s Cross, but the kid that was supposed to be meeting the girl wasn’t there anymore because we had arrived over an hour and half late. We found a McDonald’s where she accessed Wi-Fi and got his address. With that we parted ways and began towards our hostel. It was only about a 15 minute walk or so and we actually managed not to get lost!

The hostel where we were staying used to be a courthouse, and it was probably one of the biggest hostels I’ve ever seen. When we checked in we learned that we would have to be split up, so Daniela and I would be in one room but Nola would be in another. They gave us our room numbers and assigned us our bunks. The three of us decided to meet in the breakfast room the next day at 9:30, and as we parted ways Nola called her room number to us. We found our way through the labyrinth of brightly colored hallways to our room. We entered into the darkness to find a small room with four bunk beds in a row, literally right next to each other, with nothing but small dividing walls near the head of each bed. We found our bunks, but there was someone in mine. I wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t want to take someone else’s bed, so I returned to the front desk. Though it was 2:30 in the morning the pandemonium throughout the hostel was fascinating. As one of the men from the desk walked me back to my room, he randomly stopped one young man and reprimanded him for something. The boy, clearly intoxicated, tried to plead innocent, but the man warned him that he was one step from being kicked out and that he “had been there long enough to know how things work”. I wondered how long he’d been staying there. Anyway, when we reached my door the man asked me, “so where abouts are you from?” Because we were heading into a room of sleeping people I hesitated slightly, in which time he guessed Denmark. He seemed legitimately surprised when I said I was from the US. He really had no regard for their slumber because once he saw that there really was someone in my bed, he turned on the lights and started asking the poor kid his name, but he didn’t really seem to speak English. The other four boys begin waking up and between them were able to groggily converse with the man. He eventually agreed to just let me take the other bed and decided we could work the rest out in the morning. With that I climbed up into my bunk and eventually feel asleep.

We were woken up several times throughout the night, with one boy coming in a bit later, and the others getting up and going to and from the shower. We heard them laughing about what had happened the night before, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t aware we could understand Spanish. They weren’t saying anything bad though. The community showers were actually nice enough except we couldn’t adjust the temperature and the water would only stay on for increments of about 30 seconds. Probably the best part of the hostel was that they offered a free breakfast! It was pretty standard with cereal, toast, coffee, and juice, but we ate more than our fill in hopes of spending less money on food later in the day. We had planned to meet in the breakfast room at 9:30, but apparently Nola had set her alarm without accounting for the time difference; she was originally ready by 8:30 and came looking for us after she ate. I guess she ran into Daniela in the hallway and told her that she would meet up with us after we ate. When she didn’t we went to look for her. I thought I vaguely remembered her room number, so I just went with my gut and gave it a shot. I knocked on what I believed to be the correct door, and a man in his underwear answered. I suppose I had been expecting her to answer, so when she didn’t I sort of froze. I mean what was I supposed to say, “Is Nola here?” I tried to look for her on the beds behind him to no avail. We probably stood there for at least a whole seven seconds, until she finally greeted me from a bunk in the back of the room. The man seemed surprisingly unfazed by the whole thing. He just turned back towards his bunk and said, “Oh, you’re looking for your mate, come on in.” Then as he got back into bed, in good humor he added, “I thought you were just going around randomly knocking on doors and staring at people.” Nola later informed us that he had been living in the hostel for six months while he saved money working as a DJ, which is apparently a common situation.

Once we were clean, full, and relatively rested, we headed out into the cold around 10:30. We had an idea of how to get to the bus stop, but we weren’t exactly sure which direction to start out in. We wondered out loud which way to go, and a random man interjected and told us which way was south. We walked for a while and still couldn’t find it, so we asked another random stranger who kindly pointed us in the right direction. I just couldn’t get over how nice everybody was. I always thought there was a stereotype about Londoner’s being somewhat cold and distant, but that could not be further from the truth. We got off the bus and walked along the Thames for about an hour or so until we finally made it to Big Ben. I had arranged to meet up with an old friend from McKendree there. We graduated together, and he was now returning to his home in Southern England; he had gotten in the day before and was leaving that afternoon, so it was pretty lucky that we were able to see each other. Together the four of us explored Westminster Abbey, then we met up with his brother and walked to Trafalgar Square. Though it was cold, it was great just getting to walk around and see the city. From the square we decided to head back towards Will’s university which meant we got to take our first ride on the London Underground. It was pretty different than the other metro systems, and it seemed really old. It was super fast though and before long we emerged in a different part of the city. Will returned to school, and the rest of us went to check out the Museum of Natural History. Now I’ve always loved going to museums, but this had to be one of the biggest one’s I’ve ever been to. We knew it would be impossible to see everything, so we had to pick our favorite things and focus on them. Alex eventually had to leave to catch his train, but I think we stayed in there for a good four hours or so. They also had Wi-Fi so we had good chance to regroup, check the map, and formulate a plan for the evening. Will had told us about some Christmas event going on in Hyde Park so we went that way. By now the sun was starting to set (it does that around 4pm in London), it was quite cold, and we were ravenous, but walking around the park was pleasant. We found what Will was talking about, but it was way cooler than we thought. It was like a whole traveling amusement park, complete with roller coasters and beer tents. It was very Bavarian themed, with a small Chinese section so we never really figured out who was sponsoring it. We did eat a pretty great bratwurst though. We made a loop around the whole place, and it would have fun to walk around longer but we were freezing and had been walking all day so we decided to head to our next stop: the British Museum.

I was in charge of navigating to the bus stop so we left the park to find it. Sadly, we went in the wrong direction (twice), and after about an extra hour of walking we realized the stop was right outside of the park after all. I suppose the important part is that we found our bus in the end, and I was actually able to get us to the museum afterwards, which basically made up for the earlier mistake. I wasn’t sure what the British Museum was, I just knew it was famous. It turned out to be another history museum, and it might have even been more expansive than the first one! We arrived just in time to join a free tour about death in ancient Egypt and we got to see some pretty cool mummies. We probably could have spent an entire day in there, but they closed at 8:30 so we once again had to pick the galleries of most interest and focus on those. At the end we learned that it was where they filmed part of one of the Night at the Museum movies! We begrudgingly left the museum and went to a notorious British food chain called Nando’s, though we of course got lost along the way. They specialize in chicken, and it was actually quite good albeit somewhat expensive. The mashed potatoes were to die for though. I was confused when I saw everyone eating French fries but couldn’t find them anywhere on the menu, which turned out to be because they of course call them chips. After the meal we wanted to get a taste of the night life, so we set out in search of a good pub. We ended up in this perfect little establishment near King’s Cross station.

The pub was crowded, but in a good way. The live entertainment was a young man singing and playing various pop songs on his acoustic guitar. The atmosphere was just so warm and cozy. After splitting a bottle wine (the most economical option after all) I tried to scope out their draft beers, the most popular (and cheap) of which being Guinness. I guess I had never tried it before because it was quite unique and I really enjoyed it. We had found a spot to sit along the windowsill and were settled in quite nicely there. The man sitting at the table in front of me accidently backed his chair into me and, like all courteous British people, apologized profusely. When he returned from the loo he turned around and started making conversation with us. He and his wife were probably…oh I guess in their 60’s or 70’s, I can never really tell. Anyway, it turned out he was actually from North Carolina and she was from somewhere in Tennessee, though they now lived in Louisiana. I don’t recall what they were doing in the London, but they were soon going to France to visit one of their sons. Apparently the wife had been a professor at Loyola University in Louisiana and one time on sabbatical they had lived in France, so now her children loved it. They were just the nicest couple, and we talked to them for a good while. When they got up to leave the woman gave me hug and said, “well I just feel right at home with ya’ll,” and we returned the sentiment. We stayed in the pub watching the drunker people make a spectacle, then headed towards the exits when they turned the lights on. We ended up back at the bar of hostel, in what had been the breakfast room that morning. It was actually pretty hopping for such an obscure location, but we called it a night around 2:30 or so.

We got up around the same time on Saturday and followed a similar routine, except Nola had to check out. She had originally wanted to see the soccer match between Barcelona and Madrid, so she booked an earlier flight on Sunday to make it back in time; soon after she changed her flight though they randomly changed the game to Saturday, so she was stuck going back early and would still miss the match. Anyway, since she would have to head out around 3am, she decided to pay for one less night. After her bag was stored in the luggage room, we set out to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Daniela was the navigator today and decided it would be most logical to take the train from King’s Cross to the Victoria station! We were fighting our way through the crowd and were a little spread out. When we turned the corner onto the platform and saw the train was there, Nola instinctively ran and jumped on. She didn’t know where we would end up though, and when the doors started to close the look of sheer panic on her face was priceless. I managed to wedge my body into the door and did exactly what you’re not supposed to do and pried it open. By then Daniela was able to catch up and we all made it aboard. It was quite the spectacle, but we got a good laugh from it. The change was supposed to happen at 11:30, so when we got off the train just after 11 we figured we were making good time. As we neared the palace, however, we were greeted by hordes of people. The crowd was so thick that we soon accepted there was no way we’d be able to see anything. It was interesting to at least hear the marching band and stuff though I guess. It all reminded me of the time in fourth grade when my family went to Arlington Cemetery to see the changing of the guard there; if I remember correctly, my brother’s watch was set to the wrong time or something, so after sitting and waiting for what seemed like forever, we decided we had missed it and got up to leave about 10 minutes before it actually happened. I guess I’m just not destined to ever actually witness a guard change, but that’s alright.

From the palace we walked for about an hour to the Piccadilly center and got to see all of the fancy shops along the street lit up for Christmas. I guess it was pretty much equivalent to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills except it was also packed with people. From there we boarded a bus to my most anticipated sight: the Sigmund Fraud House. It was pretty far from downtown, so we were on the bus for quite a while, but it was cool to go to a less touristy part of the city. The house took us a little while to find because it’s literally just in a neighborhood. Say what you will about the archaic nature of Fraud’s work, but his contribution to the field of modern psychotherapy is incontrovertible and actually being inside of his house was surreal. He moved to London in his 70’s to escape the Nazi invasion in Vienna. It was fascinating to see his study where he worked and eventually died. It even had his notorious couch that he used in all of his sessions! We were by far the youngest visitors, and afterwards Daniella commented that pretty much everyone there looked like a psychologist…whatever that means. It was a great experience though, and I still can’t believe we actually got to see it!

By the time we left we were once again starving, but we managed to find a burrito bar near the station so that was great. We weren’t all that far from the recording studio on Abbey Road, which I had really wanted to see, but it would have been a 40 minute walk in the opposite direction and it was dark and cold and we were kind of wore out, so I agreed to forego it. Oh well, I suppose the album cover does the area enough justice anyway. We made the long journey back to the hostel to just chill for a bit and formulate a plan for the evening. We ended up deciding to participate in a pub crawl, but we got a bit of a late start. We were supposed to begin at six, but we didn’t end up jumping in until about 10. We had planned to eat a bit of dinner at the first place, but by the time we got there the kitchen was closed. They had separate menu featuring “crisps”, which Daniela explained were potato chips. For some reason I assumed it meant they would give us a basket of homemade chips, so I asked the bartender if they were still serving them. He gave me a look as if he couldn’t tell if was serious or not and I understood why when he handed me a simple bag of kettle chips. Not the most balanced dinner, but they were pretty good. Our second pub was a quite lively and crowded with young people. It was a great atmosphere, but it started to close down around midnight or so. We made our way to the third pub, and I instantly fell in love with it. The décor (specifically the carpeting) basically matched that of a roller rink from the 1980’s, and it even had some little colored disco balls. It was actually somewhat crowded, and I don’t think there was anyone else there under the age of 70. The best part was the guitarist who played his own renditions of songs by the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Cream, among others. The drinks were also unbelievably cheap, so what more do you need in a place? We never did make it to the other pubs and ended up back at the hostel around 2, and so began quite an eventful Sunday.

Nola needed to leave around 3 to take a bus back to Baker St. to catch her bus to the airport. Though it probably wasn’t the best idea after a “pub crawl”, she decided to take an hour nap before she left. She came back to our room, where the Spanish boys had also just gotten in, so we took some time to make their acquaintance. Nola and I shared my tiny bunk and she set her alarm for 3; once again, she didn’t account for the time difference, so 3:00 in Madrid had just happened, meaning her alarm would not go off. Fortunately, sometime around 4 London time, I awoke with the most urgent urge to the use the bathroom. I flew down from the bunk and didn’t even bother searching for my flip flops before running down the hall to the community toilet. What’s the worst thing I could contract anyway? Although Nola got up an hour late and had to take a taxi to Baker St., it was a relief that she woke up at all (thanks to my impeccable kidneys). Daniela and I woke up at the usual time, enjoyed one last continental breakfast, and checked out at 10. We decided to head to Victoria because that’s where the airport bus would leave from at 2:00. I, however, had a different ticket and ended up having to change mine which was quite an ordeal. We got it though, and at 1:00 we decided to have one more authentic London meal of Indian food. We went to a restaurant about a half a mile away from the station, and the food was actually quite different than any Indian food I’ve had before; it was good, but it would have been better if we wouldn’t have had to shovel it in so quickly. We left the restaurant at about 1:46, with our objective being to make it to the station a half a mile away by 1:50. Now I’ve never really enjoyed running, but that day I learned that I absolutely loathe running when I have a stomach full of Chicken Marsala and Nan bread!

We made it to the station just in time, and I had to fight the urge to vomit as we stood in line. Although we had our tickets in our hands, they informed us that the bus had sold out so we would have to wait for the 2:30 bus. I’m not really sure how that happened, but there was a good sized crowd of other enraged patrons who also got the boot. I didn’t really mind that much because the wave of nausea was starting to pass, so I was feeling pretty content. Then they informed us that for whatever reason the 2:30 bus was not going to show up at all, so we would have to wait for the 3:00. This was slightly concerning because the bus ride would take over an hour and our flight was supposed to leave at 5:30; our boarding passes said the gate would close at 5:00, but it also said it would open at 5:00 so we weren’t really sure what that meant. Anyway, if we missed the flight the people assured us we would be reimbursed. By the time 3:00 rolled around there was a mob of people with tickets for three different buses trying to claw their way aboard. We were near the front, and they agreed to let people with earlier tickets on first. I managed to make my way to the door, the man checked my pass, and I triumphantly climbed on. For half a second I thought the ordeal was over, but then Daniela wasn’t behind me. Apparently she had bought her ticket for 2:00, which seems logical, but we were in Europe so she needed a ticket for 14:00. The bus people tried to be nice about it and said they would normally just let her on, but they couldn’t today because it was so crowded. In retrospect, maybe I should have just stayed on the bus; Daniela is after all a fully capable adult in a country that speaks her native language, and it probably would have been easier to negotiate one refunded flight instead of two. In the moment though splitting up didn’t really seem like an option, so I hopped off and we quickly contemplated our next move.

I suggested that we just bite the bullet and get a cab. In Madrid, a taxi to the airport costs a flat rate of 30 euros, so I figured one here might be around 60 pounds, which would be $45 per person. Not ideal, but ultimately better than buying a new flight. We found our way to a taxi stand and hailed one pretty quickly. We asked the driver how much it would it be, and I couldn’t believe it when he said 130 pounds! That’s $205! For that price, it would have been cheaper to just get a new flight. The driver was super nice though and told us that we could go the Victoria underground station, take the metro to King’s Cross, then from there get a train to the airport. He seemed fairly confident that might be able to make it, so we thanked him and set off without further delay. We had already sold our oyster cards, so we had to get new tickets for the metro. We got to the platform just as the train was getting to ready to leave, but we made it on board in time. I was actually pretty excited that we were getting to take a train from King’s Cross, the King’s Cross. For anyone unfortunate enough not to know the gravity of that situation, King’s Cross is the station where the Hogwart’s Express departs, specifically from platform 9 3/4! We didn’t have much time to look around though as we ran straight to the ticket window. When we got there we saw that the next train to the airport was departing in three minutes, and the one after wouldn’t leave for another 30. As soon as the transaction went through we grabbed our stuff and sprinted through the station with all we had. I think I had an easier time weaving through people as I was only wearing a backpack, but poor Daniela had to pull her suitcase behind her through it all. I’m pretty sure she came very close to punting a small child off the escalator, but we ultimately emerged with our integrity intact. We once again got to the platform right as the porter was blowing his whistle and the engine was starting to move. We jumped on just as it pulled away, and we couldn’t help but to collapse into a breathless laughter. For things having had gone so wrong, we were having some really incredible luck.

We made it to the station at 4:20, but then we had to wait for a shuttle to take us to our terminal. We finally got to the airport around 4:40. We eventually made it to security, and as we were running up to the que, a worker stopped us and asked if we were late then checked our boarding passes. He too seemed fairly confident we could make it, but he actually let us the cut the entire line and go straight to the front. We immediately stripped ourselves of our boots, belts, and liquids, but the people in front of us were taking forever to get their stuff in the bins. He actually called us forward again and let us go around them! As we begin putting our stuff on the conveyor belt he very seriously said, “Now no shopping, go straight to your gate.” I nodded and laughed about that later, but in retrospect I’m sure that he was definitely making a joke. We went through the metal detector, and my heart sunk as I saw my bag on the other side of the divider. I racked my brain as to why that might be, then it hit me that I had made the most rookie mistake of my career; I had forgotten to finish off the rest of my water in my bottle before sending it through! The lady was pretty rude about it, but it only set us back a couple of minutes. We ran from security banking on the fact that the airport was small and that the gate wouldn’t really close at 5:00. We were right and we ended up getting there exactly one minute before it opened for boarding. It was a little too close of a call, but I guess all’s well that ends well and I’ve never felt so grateful to be seated on a plane before.

The trip to London was quite the adventure, but I would definitely do it all over again if I ever get the chance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amsterdam!

I would just like to preface this post by describing my last couple weeks of class. I had really started struggling to keep up with some of the coursework and worried I might be falling behind, so I spent three straight weeks dedicated to a consistent 9-5 style work schedule. I had a phonetics exam two weeks ago that I did really well on, then I planned to devote this past week to studying for my comp exam on Thursday. I was then informed that our next online lit exam was scheduled for Friday, the day we were to leave for Amsterdam. I spoke with my professor and she agreed to let me do it Thursday, which was fantastic, but it made last week a blur of studying and staying on top of all my other assignments. I left my comp test feeling pretty good, confidently handed in my phonetics assignment, then sat down to work on my lit exam after I finished class. I’m so glad she let me do it early, because it took a solid five hours or so, which would have really dampened our first day abroad. I think I did well enough on it, but when I emailed it to her around 11 Thursday night, I felt like my incessant dedication had come to fruition and it was time for a well-deserved break. Really, to not take a break would contribute to burn out and make me a less effective student overall, so I guess you could say my sanity, as well as my future academic success, depended on this trip. With that in mind, I joyously packed my bag and collapsed into bed around midnight, though I was too excited to fall asleep right away.

Our flight was scheduled for 6 am, and since the metro doesn’t start running until then, Helena, Nola, and I decided to meet in a mutually convenient location and split a cab. We planned to meet at 4, so before going to bed I set my alarm for 3:30…and 3:32…and 3:34 because I was so worried about not waking up in time. I was too excited to sleep very soundly though and ended waking up multiple times throughout the night to check the time. When my first alarm finally went off I felt surprisingly refreshed and eager to get the holiday underway. Everything went well and we made it to our gate without incident. By the time we boarded I was pretty hungry, but I hoped I would be able to catch up on some sleep as the flight was almost three hours. Of course, that didn’t happen though. I was however, quite surprised when, not long into the flight, the attendants brought out a food cart! We weren’t even served drinks on our last couple of flights, but not only did they give us a beverage, we were also served a sandwich! Now I know I always say that hunger is the best spice, and that the best sandwich is a free sandwich, but I was blown away at how delicious it was. It was literally just two pieces of bread with two pieces of cheese, but it was seriously amazing. I’m not sure what kind of bread it was, but it was so light and airy and flavorful and it had seeds or something in it. The cheese was called “Boomer Cheese” which is native to Holland and somewhat sharp. I also tasted a hint of what I think was some kind of mustard, which I usually don’t like, but the flavors married marvelously. I was feeling very content when I finished the meal, and considered trying for sleep again, but before too long the attendants came around another time! I almost didn’t know how to react when she asked if I wanted a tea or coffee because two in-flight beverages is practically unheard of. When she pleasantly handed me my steaming cup of tea it was accompanied by a small packet. This thing was called StroopWaffle (perhaps spelled that way, I never got good at Dutch) and its like two waffle crisps with caramel or syrup in the middle. It was heavenly. Although the food was incredible, I was also amazed at the greenery which started to come into view in the predawn light. Upon landing, I was beyond excited to explore this new territory

As soon as we had deplaned and met up outside of the gate, the first thing Nola said to me was, “did you try that sandwich?!” We raved about it for some time to Helena, who had been in too deep a sleep to care about food. The airport was bustling and quite a scene. One of the first things we came to was this electronic charging station where you sat on a stool and pedaled a stationary bike to power it! When we got to the main part of the airport it opened up into what could have passed for an indoor village, and everything was ornately decorated for Christmas. Its hard to describe the exact atmosphere, but it just felt so…I don’t know, traditional I guess. We had a hard time buying our train tickets at the kiosk, and I think we may have gotten to hear some of our first cuss words in Dutch from the boy behind us, but we eventually got them. We were trying to get to Amsterdam Centraal, so when we asked the man on the platform if we were in the right place for the central station, he said yes. We rode for about 40 minutes or so, then at the station looked for the ferry we were supposed to take. When we couldn’t find it, we asked information, who gave us a very confused look, and proceeded to tell us that we were not in Amsterdam. We just sort of returned her confused look until she pointed us in the direction of the right platform. I guess we had to gone to the central station in a neighboring city. We eventually boarded the correct train, and arrived in Amsterdam Centraal after about 20 minutes or so. We found our way to the ferry, which was free, to take us across the channel to where we would be staying. When the ferry dropped us of on the other side, we actually did a really good job following the directions through the small village to our place. Again, I was fascinated with the architecture and the whole feel of the area. It really reminded me of being back in a small town. Oh and another thing we noticed rather quickly was that literally everyone seems to ride a bike!

Anyway, for this trip we decided to go through AirBnB, which is pretty cool. Basically, people register their empty rooms with the company, then travelers can search for them on the sight and ask to stay there. We were staying with a man named Milton. The place seemed like an average townhouse, but it was also kind of different. The front door opened directly to a steep and narrow staircase, which led to the main floor. To the right was the living room being used as the guest room. There was also a tiny bathroom and kitchen, and another small room. Up the second flight of stairs were two bedrooms and the shower. We quickly ascertained that Milton was from Kenya and shared the small house with his seemingly teen-aged daughter. The other students were still in the room because checkout wasn’t technically until noon, but we had arranged to drop off our stuff early. He couldn’t give us the key yet though, so we agreed to be back around three. With that, we found our way back to the ferry, walked back through the train station, and emerged in the heart of Amsterdam. I immediately fell further in love with the architecture and feel of the city. We wanted to find some traditional Dutch food, but everything seemed to be more geared towards tourists, so we had to settle with a regular cafe. The food was decent. Afterwords, we kind of just wondered around taking in the sights and smells of the city. The sun was out, but it was quite a bit colder than Madrid. The temperature wasn’t even that low, but the wind made it seem much worse. We eventually made our way back to Milton’s at three and got a proper view of our room. There was a sectional couch with a full sized air mattress in the middle. We couldn’t decide who would get the couch, so we decided to all just cuddle on the mattress. The apartment seemed almost as cold as outside, so we burrowed under the blankets and enjoyed a much needed nap. As soon as we began to doze off, we could hear it start to downpour outside.

We kind of freaked out for a second when we woke up in darkness, but it turned out to only be about 6:00. We spent a long time searching Yelp for authentic Dutch food, and we were shocked at how difficult it was. We eventually settled on a small restaurant that wasn’t too expensive and was only about a two mile walk from our house. As we walked out the front door, we were more than relieved to see that the rain had passed. We probably made it there by around 8:30 or so, and we immediately fell in love with the atmosphere. It was small, cozy, and oddly sort of homey. The best part was when I asked how much tap water cost, and the waiter gave me sort funny look and said, “its tap water…its free.” I know this sound obvious, but it was literally one of the first times I’ve encountered free tap water in Europe. They usually don’t even offer it and instead make you buy a bottle of mineral water, which is usually one of the more expensive beverages on the menu. Anyway, the waiter then suggested a Dutch beer for us and Helena and I ordered Boerenkool Stamppot, while Nola order Hutspot. So this beer had a relatively high alcohol content at 8%, but it was surprisingly light and refreshing. The stamppot, was basically cabbage hash with some other vegetables that you pour some beef stew over. Again, I had quite the appetite by this point, but it was amazing! The whole meal was completely satisfying. We didn’t really have a good idea of where to go next, so we eventually ended up in a bar. We showed the bartender a picture of the brand of beer from the restaurant, and she said they didn’t have it but that she could give us something similar. As she sat them down on our table, she gave us a smile, winked, and said “good luck”. I guess she was saying that because the alcohol content on this beer was even higher, but otherwise it was nothing like the other one. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted, but it was not very good. We sat at the bar and talked for a long while, and around 11:30 or so we decided to succumb to our curiosity and head to the Red Light District.

Our only problem was that we had no idea how to get there, so after we paid our tab we asked the bartender. We weren’t far, and she gave us pretty concise directions. As we turned to leave, without a hint of a smile the bartender told us to be careful. Her sincerity was touching and slightly concerning. We really had no idea what to expect. We took a couple of turns, and before long we knew we had made it. The first few things we came upon were large strip clubs and various establishments offering seemingly every type of service one might desire, but soon we got to the heart of it. Again, I had no idea what it would be like, but I was rather surprised. So along the whole street, there are literally like storefronts with full length glass doors that have women standing behind them in a very small room. If a man is interested, he gestures or something, she lets him in, they very briefly discuss pricing, then she closes the curtain; we later learned that the average visit lasts between 6 and 15 minutes, but rarely longer than 10. Oh and there are actually red light bulbs (though some were purple) hanging just inside the window. I guess its a fitting name and all, I just didn’t think there would actually be red lights on all the windows. That Police song makes so much sense now! Anyway, the main strip seemed to go on for a quite a while, and there were even more windows down the side streets. I was also surprised at their attire; though I wouldn’t say they were modestly dressed, there was technically nothing more than PG-13 nudity. Most of the women wore pretty blank expressions, some looking demure and others somewhat bored. Then there were those, especially on the side streets, that were very actively trying to attract attention. I tried to imagine what it could possibly feel like to be in that position. It was overall quite a fascinating experience. It also didn’t feel the least bit dangerous. There was a sort of energy on the whole street, and it was pretty obvious that most of the people there were tourists. We walked away reflecting on the situation, until we came upon a burger place that smelled delicious.

I wasn’t very hungry, so I examined the beer list, still trying to chase the dragon of that first one. I settled on a French-sounding ale, that was not the same but was also quite delicious. We also ended up eating some of the burger, and it was amazing! I know these descriptions of food are beginning to sound redundant, but it was seriously soo good. It was juicy and cooked perfectly, the cheese was great, and there was some sort of special sauce that just made the whole thing. We went to another bar or two after, then decided to make the journey back to Milton’s. By the time we crossed the channel, the wind was roaring and it was pretty cold, but we all agreed that it had been a fantastic day.

We took our time getting up the next morning and eventually took showers. It was actually quite different. You basically open the door into this small tiled room, with a sink on one wall and the shower head on the other. I regretted forgetting my flip flops, but it was a nice shower nonetheless. Now that we had a taste for burgers, we found a burger bar downtown that we decided to try. As soon as we left, we realized today was a bit different than yesterday; it was completely overcast, the wind was stronger, and the temperature was lower. It wasn’t all that bad though. Once again, the restaurant did not disappoint! This time we tried Irish beef burgers with Amsterdam cheese, and it was amazing. It also had that special sauce on it that was unidentifiable yet delicious.

Our next objective was to go back to the area of the red light district because along the way we had some seen some very pretty channels that we wanted to see again in the daylight. We never did find it though. I guess we walked in the wrong direction, but that was alright. We found ourselves in a cheese shop where we could sample several different kinds, and they were great! We also found a free “cheese museum” but it really just seemed like another store with more samples. We then walked through some sort of flower market that was pretty interesting. We eventually procured a tourist map and located the Anne Frank House. It was quite a walk from where we were, but we were already numb from the cold anyway so it didn’t matter. When we got there, the line stretched all the way around the corner of the building! I suppose we expected that, but it didn’t make it easier. We made up our minds to stick it out, and those two hours really seemed to fly by (not exactly, especially after it started raining!). We finally made it in the door right around dusk. Though we were damp and freezing, it turned out to be entirely worth it. It was surreal to actually be inside a house with so much history. Somehow, I’ve never actually read the Diary of Anne Frank, but its definitely on my list now. It was fascinating to actually go behind the bookcase and see were several people had to hide out. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have to “speak softly and step lightly” all the time with blackout curtains constantly drawn. Though I suppose those conditions weren’t as bad as where they all eventually ended up. I didn’t realize it, but apparently she died in Auschwitz very shortly before the liberation. It was all pretty sad.

When we left the museum it was still cold and raining, and we didn’t really have anywhere to go. We just sort of started walking until we realized we didn’t know where we were. We decided to get a warm beverage and regroup. We got some tea, and tried to soak in the warmth of our small corner. We exchanged pleasantries with some local boys seated next to us, and we eventually asked them for food recommendations. They told us we wouldn’t really have any luck finding traditional dutch food in the city center, but when we told them about our meal the night before, they conceded that it was probably the only authentically dutch dish. One of the boys suggested a Thai place, which we all agreed to rather quickly. They then pointed it out to us on our map and showed where we were currently located. The shop had a nice atmosphere, and we were in no hurry to venture back out into the elements, so we ordered another drink. Eventually, an English business man sat down on the other side of us, and he was quite an interesting conversationalist. He gave us some other suggestions on places to go, and we talked to him for quite a while. We finally ventured back out, and it didn’t even seem that cold anymore. We expertly navigated our way to the restaurant and were less than surprised to be greeted by a long wait. It didn’t matter though, because we really  had nowhere else to be. It turns out the British man was correct in that the food was mediocre; don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just wasn’t the best Thai I’d ever had.

After the restaurant we ventured back to the red light district. We wanted to see a show or something, but everything was way out of our price range, so we decided to go to the Red Light Secret’s Museum of Prostitution instead. It was actually really interesting. It started out with a short documentary about a typical day in the neighborhood. I was somewhat surprised at how involved the community is; the sheets are taken to a local laundromat, a man from a nearby cafe regularly brings coffee to the working girls, and a local restaurant caters their food. It showed one of the girls going about her daily business cleaning her work station, then going to a hardware store to buy a new red light bulb. It was interesting to watch them just go through their usual routine. We then got to walk through some small galleries depicting different aspects of the trade throughout history. It was interesting to read about the origins of the district, which is the oldest area in the city. It was originally a popular port, so naturally the sailors attracted that type of commerce. There have been multiple religious movements over the years to abolish it, but it always ended up flourishing because authorities mostly just turned a blind eye to it. It was officially made legal in 2000. I learned that prostitution is actually the world’s oldest profession, and we saw several famous works of art dedicated to the subject. Then we ended up standing behind two red-lit windows on the street front. We were on the second floor, right above the museum sign, so obviously no one paid us any attention, but it was still interesting to see it from that perspective. After, we passed through to what a typical work station looks like. Its pretty much just a small room with a bed and and a sink that the girl can decorate however she chooses. Then we walked into an upscale brothel room, complete with a bathtub and a television. So the main difference is that on the street, people settle on a set price and pay up front, so the girl tries to get the client in and out as quickly as possible, whereas in a brothel clients pay for time, so they try to prolong the process as much as they can. One sign said it was a minimum of 75 euros, but that people could end up paying several thousand for one visit. We then entered into a room that was designed like one where clients could explore some of their more unconventional interests; turns out older prostitutes enjoy entering into this type of work because it tends to be less taxing on them. In the next room was a simulator where you could sit in front a screen and watch a recording of random people on the street to get an even better idea of what it would feel like to be behind the glass.

Probably the most interesting thing were the different stories they had posted on the walls throughout the museum in which women of all different backgrounds shared some of their experiences. Many seem to view it as just a job, but some, especially some of the older ones working in the special interest department, actually enjoy it. Then there were the tragic stories. One young woman was lured from her home in Poland by a man who had promised her a job working at a hotel. When she arrived in Amsterdam however, he withheld her passport, forced her into prostitution, and kept her wages. He was arrested after two years for trafficking, but she continued to work because she didn’t see any other option. She is currently saving her money and hopes to one day have enough to return to Poland. It seems pretty difficult though. If I remember correctly, the girls have to a pay a landlord 150 euros to rent out their space for just half a day. Although things are monitored, the literature still conceded that there are some underage or non-legal citizens workings, some against their wills. There is however, a growing amount of activist groups that advocate for worker’s rights, and I even read somewhere that they were unionized. I think it started during the Napoleon occupation in the early 19th century that women were required to get a medical exam twice a week; if they are clear, they are given a red card, but if not, they get a white card labeled with whatever disease they have. They are then not allowed to work and receive free medical care. Also prostitution is considered a legitimate and taxable profession. At the very end of the tour was a wall of visitor’s confessions, which were entertaining to read. Then there was actually a confessional that you could go into and write your own if you so desired. We left the museum with a fresh perspective on the whole situation, and it was an enlightening experience.

We didn’t really have time to do much on Sunday as we wanted to budget enough time for the train. We ended up getting there pretty early though, so we enjoyed a nice meal in the airport and shopped around for a while. One the flight back, we did not get the cheese sandwiches, but we had chicken instead and it was almost as good. When she asked what I wanted to drink, I asked her how much the red wine costs, but I don’t think she heard the first part because she just smiled, handed me the bottle, and asked if I wanted a glass of water too. Then they once again came around with hot beverages and stroopwaffles. I could really get used to the service in Holland! It was nice to be back in the warmth of Madrid, and by the time I reached my apartment, I was pretty wore out. I was completely satisfied with the trip though. Between the friendly people, the architecture, and the food, I think I could seriously see myself living around there.

When I was finally back, I had a better opportunity to connect to the internet and read more about current events. Of course we had heard about the attack in Paris, but there honestly was not much talk about it. I mean everyone was expressing their sympathies and “today we are all French” could bee seen in various locations written in many different languages. Reading some reactions to the event caused me to reflect on my time in Morocco. I would like to think that I would never have had the tendency to discriminate against an entire group of people based on one terrorist group, but being exposed to true Islamic ideals and real-life Muslims have definitely allowed me to be more open minded today. I honestly feel pretty bad for all the Muslims who are open about their religion due to the discrimination they will have to face. I read that one lady in London, who was wearing a hijab, was actually pushed in front of an underground train. I mean someone made a good point that no one believes the KKK was representative of all Christians, just like ISIS isn’t a relevant sample of Muslims. Anyway, I feel like most people will be able to discern the difference between the two, and that line of thinking will prevail. We’ll see how events continue to transpire in the future, but hopefully things will end up in the best interest of humanity. Imagine that!

Morocco!

This weekend has no doubt been an incredible adventure, and it honestly feels like I’ve been out of Madrid for much more than five days! I suppose it all began on Wednesday with the train ride to Algeciras on the southern coast of Spain. We ended up taking the regular-speed train, which took about six hours, but our group basically had the whole car to ourselves, so it was pretty fun. We arrived around 9 pm more than ready for a good meal. As we walked through the streets to our hostel though, we were surprised to see that everything seemed to be closed. Furthermore, the whole city hardly even felt like Spain; many signs were written in Arabic and the vibe of it was just very different. We found our hostel, which turned out to be pretty nice (each room even had its own shower!), then set off in different directions looking for something to eat. I was walking with two other students, and it was probably the first time since I’ve been here that I felt uncomfortable. Though we tried to walk to the most well-lit area, the majority of the streets were dark, the only pedestrians were men, and we seemed to be drawing quite a bit of attention. We thankfully came across two other students from our group and decided to band together. We went to the first open restaurant we found and got a table on the patio. There were men sporadically seated at other tables nearby, and they for real seemed to all be silently staring at us. The waiter soon came over to inform us that at the moment they were only serving a couple of items, so we decided to go to a different restaurant next door. The waiter there seemed much friendlier, and the only other party seated nearby jovially carried on their own conversation without paying the slightest attention to  us. The waiter spoke Spanish, but there were a lot of Arabic words on the menu, so we kind of just picked something without knowing exactly what to expect. We were all more than pleasantly surprised with our food though because the seasoning was much more exquisite than one would usually find in Madrid; it kind of reminded me of Indian food. After a very satisfying meal we found our way back to the hostel without incident and retired soon after. I made sure to take a thorough shower and try to sleep as well as I could because I had no idea what to expect for the next couple of days.

We woke up before dawn, then all walked together to the shore where we were split into two groups of 15 and assigned a guide; ours was named Mark, a man in his mid 40’s or so who had recently finished serving in the Peace Corps for about two years. He was pretty quirky, but very knowledgeable about Morocco. We eventually boarded some buses, then rode for about an hour to the port in Tarifa where we caught a ferry. We were on the Mediterranean for about an hour, during which time Mark gave us some food and general information about the Morocco. Some of the things I read were quite interesting. For instance, I learned that it is pretty taboo to speak out against the king, and certain topics, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should generally not be mentioned; the booklet said that most media sources were regulated and that even some of the more liberal newspapers steer clear of insulting the royal family. Mark eventually collected our passports and customs forms so we would be cleared to enter the country when we docked; I can now officially say that within the last three months I have crossed international boards by air, land, and sea :) The ride was pretty rough, but nobody got really sick so that was good.

We finally arrived in Tangier, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually not that hot; it was probably around 78 or so. We walk around the city and Mark shared some interesting facts with us along the way. Though I had been surprised by the government regulation I’d read about on the boat, Morocco is quite progressive compared to other Islamic countries in the Middle East. For this reason, it’s really common for people from Hollywood to shoot movies there when they are trying to depict one of those countries; for instance, it is easy to portray Afghanistan in the southern part of Morocco. He told us that works like Gladiator, Game and Thrones, and the Sex and the City movie where they supposedly go to Saudi Arabia had been filmed there instead. He explained that the government was pretty relaxed with those types of things as long as they didn’t disrespect the people or royal family of Morocco, whereas other countries would need to first thoroughly examine the script.

We then walked to a market. There were standard fruit and vegetable displays, as well as some booths that sold common household items, and it all reminded me of the markets in Central America. When we got to the meat section, however, things were a little different. That’s not to say that other markets didn’t have raw meats on display, but this place was on a whole other level! There were of course whole chickens hanging everywhere, but there were also some pretty massive cow parts as well. We passed one stand that literally had an entire cow skull (with meat) just sitting there. Our pace definitely quickened as we walked through this part, but when we reached the end it just opened up into this huge fish market. Now, again, I don’t really like seafood, so maybe if you do it wouldn’t seem that bad, but it was this huge warehouse looking room stuffed to the gills with every type of fish you could imagine; the smell was less than appetizing. We walked through pretty quickly, and when we stepped outside, there was a man unloading a truck, and, after seeing our fascination, he proceeded to hold up a whole eel for people to take pictures of.

From the market we walked to a local women’s center called DARNA. This organization helps women build marketable skills, such as sewing, and gain a basic education. We toured some of the work and classrooms, then sat down for tea with some of the girls there. First of all, let me just take a second to comment on the Moroccan tea; its apparently green tea, and I don’t know what they do to it, but it’s very sweet and super delicious. I typically don’t even like my tea that sweet, but I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. Anyway, we sat down to chat with three young adults who had either finished college or where in the final stages. We discussed things like the education system in Morocco, which seems very complicated but apparently is directly modeled after the system in France. We also talked about dating and marriage. They told us that dating in Morocco is pretty typical and modern, and, while arranged marriages do happen, the bride and groom definitely have a say in whether or not they go through with it. The family structure in modern Morocco is also pretty similar to that of the Western world; people in cities usually have one or two children, and it recently passed that women could initiate the process of filing for a divorce. I don’t exactly remember how it ended up, but I think it was recently changed so that now the husband doesn’t have to approve the divorce for it to be official like he did in the past. Also, polygamy is not unheard of, particularly in the countryside, but it’s not all that common anymore. One topic that I found particularly interesting was their style of dress. Around the city we saw people, both men and women, which were wearing either traditional clothing or casual western-style apparel. Even the two young women who were talking to us were different; one wore the traditional head covering while the other did not. They explained that style of dress was one’s individual choice and had to do with how people interpreted the Koran, some thought it was more important while others did not. They added that, either way, people were not likely to be discriminated against or judged too harshly. One of the girls talked about how just because someone chose to dress traditionally did not necessarily mean they were devout practitioners of Islam, and alternatively, one could wear modern clothing and be just as pure. After tea we ate a delicious lunch of chicken tagine, which was served with some sort of sweetened fruit that no one could identify. We shared stereotypes about each others cultures, and it turns out that most young people in Morocco base their notion of US university culture on the American Pie movies.

When we finished lunch, we walked back to the bus and set out along the Atlantic coast to the city of Asilah. Most people fell asleep pretty quickly, and we were all surprised when, after about an hour or so, we woke up on the side of the road. We got off the bus and found ourselves on a beach where Mark announced we would be riding camels! They were pretty interesting I guess, as I’ve never really been in a close proximity to one. One of them kept making this deep growling noise that kind of freaked everybody out, but I think that might just be the sound they make. Getting up on them was probably the most interesting part; they basically lay on the ground so you can climb on the saddle, then they sort of go up in stages. It’s kind of hard to explain, but first they put their hind legs up, so you lurch forwards, then they bring their front legs up and repeat the process on both ends. I’m honestly surprised nobody fell off. I realize we were just casually strolling, but the ride was very calm and smooth, perhaps even more so than riding a horse. It was such a cool experience though, and I could definitely understand why that was a prime source of transportation back in the day. When everyone had gotten a turn riding, we got back on the bus and continued our journey.

We arrived in the old town of Asilah after about another hour, and spent some time wandering through the streets. They kind of reminded me of the typical European style city, but most walls were painted blue. If I understand correctly, blue was originally used to show that the area was inhabited by Jewish people back in the day. This city was pretty interesting, and much of the white space on the walls was available for local artist to do with as they pleased. The city had a pretty cool feel to it, but there were not many people out. We found our way to a lookout spot on the coast and took some time to soak in the splendor of the ocean. As we made our way out of the city, the sounds of the “call to prayer” emanated from the local mosque. We had also heard that twice over the course of our time at the women’s center, and I think it generally happens five times a day.

We got back to the bus and began our three hour journey to the city of Rabat where we would be staying with our host families. By that time we had realized that apparently only the very newly college educated people in Morocco speak English; everyone else speaks a Moroccan variation of Arabic, and the educated people also speak French. With that in mind, Mark gave us a very basic crash course in Arabic (though it turned out all we really needed to say was “thank you” and “I’m full”), and some other general tips. He told us that it was likely our homes would not have toilets, and would instead have a “Turkish toilet”. If, like me, you’d never seen one, it’s basically a hole in the ground that you pour water over to “flush”. I was less than excited for this variation, but I supposed anything was better than the Nicaraguan latrines. Another interesting thing we learned about Islam is that Allah often takes the form of a stranger or foreigner, so people will do everything in their power to accommodate such people. Mark assured us that we did need to continue eating after we were full because if we did, they would feed until we were sick, which happened to him when he first moved there. Also, it is apparently taboo to ever deny someone a drink of water if they ask.

By the time we arrived in Rabat it was after dark, and I still could not get over how well developed everything was! I seriously felt like I could have been driving in Florida or southern California. We unloaded into what seemed to be a random alley, but it opened up into a pretty cool part of the city. It was the traditional narrow alley style of roads, and we navigated them as a group until people were dropped off at their houses. I was fortunate enough to be able to room with my two good friends on the trip Helena and Daniela. The surprise I had experienced along the main road of the city paled in comparison to what I experienced inside of the home; it was actually pretty fancy. I think the décor made it seem more regal or something, but I felt like we could have been staying in part of a palace. It of course wasn’t that big, but it was extremely comfortable. The host lady, her name slips my mind, showed us to our room. Apparently bedrooms in Morocco are typically much different than what you would normally imagine; it’s more like parlor with couches along the walls, and that’s where they sleep. Anyway, it was a really cool room and it was super cozy. She soon brought us out some traditional dresses from her closet and let us try them on and take pictures with them! She didn’t speak any English or Spanish, but we were basically able to communicate with gestures. Daniela was able to offer a couple of words in French, so that helped a little. After the fashion show, she beckoned us to the table where we were served more tea, rolls of bread, these crepe sort of things, and this cake like thing that was kind of like sweat corn bread. We had cheese, honey, and jam to put on them and, I don’t know exactly what it was, but the cheese stuff with those crepe things were a revelation. We enjoyed this little meal around 8:30 or so, then the host mom next door, who spoke a little English, came to fetch us. My roommates and I debated on whether or not what we had eaten was dinner because I didn’t see how it couldn’t have been. Anyway, we set out with the other host mom and the three students staying with her to explore the city. We walked through the narrow streets which were bustling with different vendors, some selling food and others random products. We emerged into what I guess is the main part of the city, which was comparable to Florida. We kind of just walked up and down the main strip taking in all the lights and sounds. The people on the streets really just seemed sort of normal. Again, some were dressed traditionally and others were not, but they engaged in usual activities.

When we returned to our home, I had to admit defeat as the table was set with an elaborate meal. We ate large pieces of chicken on a bed of thin and very delicious pasta, along with more bread, fruit, and tea. Perhaps the best part of the night came when Helena excused herself to use the bathroom and soon after we heard the sweet sound of a toilet flushing! I suppose I had been anticipating staying in homes along the rural countryside, so as I helped myself to another mandarin and cup of tea, I could not have felt more content with the situation; we even had Wi-Fi! When we were nearly finished eating, her son came home. He seemed to be in his mid to late twenties, and spoke English fairly well. He had apparently graduated pretty recently and was now working at a bank. Turns out he was also a martial artist! We had a good time comparing different styles and what not, and we all talked about what we study in school. After a lengthy conversation, we retired to our room where our host mom had covered the couches in sheets and blankets. I don’t think I’d ever been more ready to sleep, and it didn’t take long at all.

We got up bright and early Friday morning and we were greeted with a breakfast consisting of our favorite foods from last night’s pre dinner meal. Once we’d eaten our fill, we navigated our way to the bus where we met with the rest of the group. From there we went to a sort of community school that was established in order to offer classes to people from the impoverished parts of the city. Speaking of which, we happened to pass a very large shanty town on our way, and it looked pretty similar to those in Central America I guess, but the government had actually built a wall in front of part of it so it can’t be seen from the road. I guess that’s one way to go about fixing the problem. We met with some young students from the school and discussed these types of issues. It turns out that it’s quite difficult to leave the shanties because in order to lease a legitimate residence you have to prove your past address or something like that. They also mentioned that some people actually prefer to stay there because they are not required to pay taxes, and the homes are extremely affordable. Obviously they also entail the risks associated with poor public hygiene, lack of clean water, and the electoral dangers that come with people haphazardly wiring their own homes. We talked a little bit about other economic problems in the country, which mostly included lack of jobs.

The conversation eventually moved to more social and religious topics. I really had no knowledge of Islam going into the experience, and I learned so much about it. First of all, I suppose I had no idea of the range of beliefs. On the one hand you have the Islamic countries in the Middle East which tend to me much more extreme in their beliefs. I mean obviously you have those few on the highest end of the scale, the couple of radical extremists that many people seem to equate to Islam in general, but besides that Middle Eastern countries tend to put much more importance in enforcing religious law. Those practices are the reasons why women are generally not allowed to drive, must always be covered, and homosexuals are actively hunted down, and sometimes publicly executed, by the government. Then there’s Morocco, which is apparently considered the sort of Las Vegas of the Islamic world. In Morocco, things like homosexuality, prostitution, and eating during Ramadan are technically considered illegal, but it is common knowledge that they occur. The students explained to us that people are generally even okay with these things as long as they remain private and out of the public eye. He noted that one’s friends and family will most likely be aware if someone is gay, but those types of activities are never spoken of and must only take place behind closed doors. If the unspoken rules are followed, there will generally be no issues. Things like a pride parade, however, would never be permitted. In fact, there was some footage of an underground same sex wedding that got posted to YouTube a couple of years ago, and the participants were promptly arrested to prove that point. Alternatively, when a transvestite was beaten by a group on the street, both parties were prosecuted as a means of discouraging vigilantism. They also said it’s kind of understood that people sometimes drink alcohol, or like I mentioned before, eat during Ramadan, but such things must only be done in the privacy of one’s own home. Authorities also turn a blind eye to prostitution, and it seems that men actually come from the Middle East to experience it for themselves, but if a brothel becomes too well known the police will come in and arrest everyone. The conversation returned to Ramadan and other religious practices, and they were pretty fascinating to hear. It basically seems like the range in which one practices the religion is very similar to that of Christianity. Like the Koran, there’s much variation in the interpretations of the bible, which leads to different denominations of the one religion, and within those subsects there is a range of devotion from fundamentalists to Chreasters. I mean I guess some Muslims chose to cover their heads just like some Christians chose not dance or gamble. Then one student mentioned that Morocco was actually pretty diverse, and he would go as far as to speculate that perhaps 3% of the country was not Muslim and were Jewish, Christian, or Atheist (though Mark later told us that on the national census it was more like 1%).

Another interesting part of the talk revolved around political issues. We briefly talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not extensively. I learned that one of the most controversial topics in the country is that of the Western Sahara. Apparently when France left the country and established political boarders, they failed to make the Sahara part of any country because they figured it was just a desolate waste land. Well, that decision has caused quite a bit of conflict between Morocco and surrounding countries, especially after they discovered oil there. The students were very open to discussing these issues with us, and they asked us a little bit about the US as well. Most of it had to do with how we usually pay for college and the lifestyle depicted in American Pie, but we also talked about the different political parties and beliefs within the country. We were of course served tea during the meeting, and once we had all finished we thanked them for their time and got back on the bus.

We took a short ride to see some Roman ruins. I’m still a bit confused as to why we went to Morocco to see artifacts of Rome, but it was interesting nonetheless. We had a good time walking the grounds and exploring what was left of the structures. There was this one pool thing that had eels in the alcoves of it. Legend has it that if a women throws a boiled egg into the pool and an eel comes out and eats it, she is fertile, though the significance of it being an egg did not occur to me until later. Anyway, there was a woman there selling them, and a few girls tried it. No eels came out and they were all, except for one, rather disappointed. We pondered the parameters of the myth though. After all, Helena pointed out that eels are more likely to come out after dark, so it’s possible that the eggs could have been eaten later and the participants would never know the difference. We left the ruins, some happier than others, and drove to the tomb of Muhammad…I believe the VI, who Mark kept saying was like the George Washington of Morocco. The tomb is located next to a mosque, and we quickly learned that in Islam, Friday is the holy day, so there was a constant stream people coming to pray. Also, from the speakers of the mosque we could hear three or four men singing the words of the Koran in unison. It was pretty cool to see, but it felt a little intrusive.

Afterwards, we returned to our host families for the traditional Friday meal of couscous. The girls from the house next door joined us, and we were served a huge tagine of chicken and beef on a bed of couscous and vegetables, then given fruit for dessert. We had a great time drinking tea and getting to know each other, and before we knew it, it was time to reunite with the group. Our next activity was to split into small groups and band together with a couple of Moroccan students from the local university. Five of us got paired with two girls, and we mostly walked around different parts of the city comparing and contrasting what our university cultures were like. We walked along a coast then made our way through a market. We ended up at a café where three young men joined our party. I’m not sure who they were, as the two girls didn’t know them either, but the more the merrier I guess. We talked about pop culture in terms of our favorite music and TV shows. They asked us if college really was like the American Pie movies and told us how things operate in their schools. It was awesome getting to know them because, once again, it just went to show that regardless of race, religion, or nationality, college students are basically the same wherever you go. We bade the students farewell, then the whole group went to one of the other host homes where we heard presentations from a student currently doing a Fulbright and volunteer from the Peace Corps (Mark). It was definitely interesting learning about some of the different options for living abroad.

After the meeting, it was time for our bath. We were introduced to our guide, a young Moroccan women that we think may have been the girl from the school earlier that day. We were all given a packet of soap and this glove scrubber thing that was supposed to be really good for exfoliating. The Haman wasn’t too far from our house, so we were there before we knew it. We entered into this large room that was sort of split in half; one side had a huge mirror and a counter where you could check your bags, and then there was area with some benches along the wall. We were herded into this area, and sort of stood around awkwardly waiting to see who would be the first to get undressed. Apparently the custom there is to wear underwear and nothing else. It was definitely a bit uncomfortable at first, but I have to say, after a while it was actually pretty liberating! We all gave our clothes to the lady behind the counter and in return she gave us each a large bucket. Our guide then led us into the bathing rooms. Basically there were three connected rooms that got progressively hotter. I don’t really have much experience with saunas, so I guess I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to that because I had to stick to the first room, which was also the least crowded. The other two were full of women sitting on the ground, or small stool/mat, and essentially taking bucket showers. Each room has a couple of spigots for you to fill your big bucket, then you use a smaller container to scoop water and dump in on yourself. Somehow, we misplaced the little scoop that our host mom had given us, so we were using one from a student in the other group. Soon they had to leave though, so she came in and asked for it back. Then, this random lady sitting nearby, who happened to see the whole thing, gave us her scoop to use! She even insisted we keep it until the three of us were completely finished. We couldn’t really communicate with her, but her act of generosity was extremely moving. Overall it was an interesting experience. Most students seemed to feel quite strongly about it; some loved it while others said it was literally the most uncomfortable experience of their lives. I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal either way, but it did feel amazing to be clean again!

When we finished with the baths, we returned to our homes for yet another delicious meal. We shared the meal with the host group next door again, this time eating at their house. Afterwards, some of the lady’s friends and family came over and before we knew it, there was basically a full blown party. The women were drumming and singing, and the whole mood was quite jovial. One of the ladies started giving Henna tattoos, so I got one just because everyone else was, but it was cool. We eventually returned home and went to bed with our only regret being that we had to leave so early the next morning.

It was kind of sad getting on the bus, partially because it was before dawn, but mostly because I knew I would really miss our temporary home in Rabat. There was some debate over what we were doing in the afternoon. The itinerary said a hike in the mountains and a visit to a rural home, but the extent of the hike was unclear. After a couple of hours on the bus, we realized what Mark had meant. So we really were just going to visit a family, but it turned out that walking to their home from the bus was quite a feat. Seriously, the terrain was rocky and steep and it seemed to take us forever to get there. The thing is that we were basically just walking through this village, which means that the people living there have to endure that jaunt every single day! We finally arrived at the house of a young women and her mother, where we would eat lunch and share a discussion. Mark warned us ahead of time that the setting was quite different, so we should focus on more micro stuff and steer clear of controversial political issues. They told us about traditional wedding ceremonies and shared some of their experiences. They explained that the closest school was about a 30 minute walk along the main road (if you didn’t break your neck climbing the mountain first). Overall it was just really cool to get off the beaten path and interact with some locals who held a different perspective of life.

Afterwards, we had to hike back up the mountain to the bus. As everyone climbed aboard huffing and puffing, Mark handed out Dramamine to those prone to motion sickness because apparently the drive was going to be quite rough. I didn’t really think it was so bad though, and soon enough we had arrived at our final destination of Chefchaouen. This city is colloquially referred to as the “blue city”, which again may a more not have indicated a historically Jewish population. It was also quite similar to some of the other older cities in Spain and Italy. We made our way to our hostel, then were set free to do as we pleased for about three hours. The city was extremely touristy, so everyone mostly used the time to shop for souvenirs. More people here spoke Spanish, and it wasn’t entirely uncommon for them to speak English. It was pretty and all, but it all just seemed so marketed towards tourists. Also, the young men there were kind of rude. They would not leave us alone and kept trying to engage us conversation or would catcall as we walked by. I mean that stuff happens in Spain too, but they were ruthless. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we felt threatened or harassed or anything, it just got old very quickly. We met for dinner in the central square and shared one last savory meal. By the time we finished eating we were all struggling to keep our eyes open, but everyone seemed to be very content and satisfied with the trip as a whole.

We retired to our hostel and got a pretty good night’s sleep. Turns out we got pretty lucky because a girl from the other group said she killed two cockroaches in their hostel. We had to get up ridiculously early, but as usual we were still running behind schedule, so it was a pretty stressful morning. We did things a little differently on the way back; we took the bus to the city of Ceuta, which is technically Spanish, so we actually crossed the international boarder while still in Africa. I’m not sure what happened, but we had to stand there for what seemed like forever, then when they finally started to let us through, several people got questioned pretty extensively. By then we were really running behind, so we split into small groups to take taxis the port. From there we caught the ferry back to Spain. As we prepared to board, we bade farewell to Mark and promised to keep in touch. The ferry ride was even rougher this time, but a lot people ended up sleeping anyway. We eventually made it back to that town in Spain, and in the afternoon we got back on the train to Madrid.

Overall it was an incredible experience, and I’m so glad I did it. I really was not sure what to expect going in, but it well exceeded anything I had in mind. It’s kind of weird now to be walking around campus and randomly see someone from the trip. On the first day, I was talking to this one girl about how nice it felt to take a shower once I got back, and out of nowhere this other girl from the trip came up and eagerly joined in our revelry. I always said the best way to bond with someone is to travel with them to a developing country, but I would now add that taking a public bath with someone creates a much more unique bond. Anyway, everyone seems to be almost caught back up on school work and settling back into life in Madrid. It felt good to be back, but I’m so looking forward to the next trip!