Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spain 1: Me encanta Madrid.

“Going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” – Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

Hallway of the Reina Sofia.

No, I didn't get away from myself ~ but I did get away from Morocco for awhile this summer. Five nights at a yoga/reiki retreat in Andalucia, followed by four nights in Madrid. I traveled solo, purposefully. A quiet, restful break from the rigors of Peace Corps life. (insert sarcastic smirk here).

Seriously, I needed the break. And it was nice to find I can still butcher Spanish as badly as I currently butcher Arabic.

Madrid was everything I wanted in a vacation. I walked and walked the historic streets of the city center. I would meander around a bit in the morning, find a place to sit and have an iced latte while reading the International Herald Tribune/El Pais, then head off to a museum, passing majestic churches and historic buildings on the way.

I wore makeup and a tank top and a knee-length skirt, and was not bothered once in four days. I got a pedicure. I read five books* ~ in fact, I had to restock and was grateful to find a bookstore with some English selections. I bought street art, and postcards, and souvenirs for my host family, and some Morocco-appropriate tops for only 6 euros each. I snacked on tapas and calamari, and splurged my last night on a seafood paella.

And I will admit that for some reason I indulged in a daily habit of Oreo McFlurries at the nearest McDonald's. Y'all know how I feel about chains, what they do to our eating habits, our economies, our environment. And yet, it felt oddly ... comforting.

When I tired of walking or needed a break from the museum, I stopped at an outdoor cafe and sipped a glass (or two!) of very cold, very crisp white wine. I did this several times a day. Retox, I liked to call it, giggling to myself behind the pages of my book.

(Those of you who can enjoy any of these small luxuries at any time have no idea how lovely it was to revisit a world where they are so readily available.)

My main purpose in choosing Madrid (besides the inexpensive flight from Marrakech) was to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Museo del Prado. And it was just as quietly spectacular as you might imagine. Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Carravagio, Titian, Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" ... and so much more. My favorite: Rubens' version of "The Three Graces," beautiful women drawn with such tender love even when they're "of an age." Spent the better part of a day at the Prado and still didn't see Bellini, Botticelli ... I guess I'll just have to return.

But, to me, the real gem of Madrid turned out to be the Reina Sofia, Madrid's modern art museum. Famous for being the home of "Guernica," Picasso's giant statement on the horrors of war, the Spanish Civil War in particular. It's enormous, overwhelming. But that wasn't the half of it. The Reina Sofia was without a doubt the best museum I (an amateur appreciator, to be sure) have ever visited. A sizeable collection of Picassos, of course, as well as Dali, and the usual modern masters (Duchamp, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Calder). But just so full of works by people I'd never heard of, that mesmerized me by content rather than name. Painting and film and sculpture and installation. I had to leave for lunch and come back, and again for a snack (and, yes, some more wine) before returning to love it some more. And I'm not a museum person, really. That's how great it was.

My third highlight was accidentally discovering the Royal Botanical Gardens, a 20-acre stretch next to the Prado, ill-advertised and hidden by a marble and iron fence, giant yews beyond. I smelled it first, damp humusy fertile earth that almost made me cry with homesickness for my own garden. (Well, actually, it did make me cry.) Another morning spent wandering through plots of yuccas and rosemarys and grasses and sculpted privet and meandering thymes. I wished I could've slept in there, in that damp earth smell.

Madrid. I miss it. I slept well in a private room (24 euros/night) the size of a closet but with the luxury of a ceiling fan, in a hostel where not until I arrived did I realize the proprietor was of Moroccan heritage. He didn't understand a word I said in Arabic; whether that was because of my language-butchering or because he never learned the language of his origins, I never determined.

I'm posting just a few photos here, and yoga photos farther down; many more are available on my Flickr site.

I was afraid that in returning to my dusty Moroccan village, I would lose all the calming benefits of my vacation. I needn’t have worried. Same old ups and downs here (up = crowds of kids running to greet me every time I turn a corner, my favorite transit driver telling me how much my Arabic has improved; down = crowds of young men trying constantly to get my attention, Berber women telling me I really can't speak Arabic very well, can I?)

Mostly, though, it’s been ups. The dar chebab reopens today, inchallah. I look forward to moving ahead and finally getting some work done. And to booking a flight home in December, my next getaway.

Street musician outside the Prado.

Picasso's "Woman in a Garden," with the giant "Guernica" in the background.

Sculpture outside the Reina Sofia.

One of my favorite finds at the Reina Sofia, a 1937 piece by photographer Jose Renau photograph: "Shedding her outer layer of superstition and misery, from the immemorial slave there emerged THE WOMAN capable of active participation in the making of the future"

One of many beautiful churches.

Mercado de San Miguel ~ the Williams Sonoma of mercados. Wine bar, organic nuts in bulk, fruit and veggies lovingly cradled in (recycled paper?) nests rather than dumped into plastic crates as I'm used to.

Graffiti at an alleyway cafe.

Nebraskans, can you imagine a Ministry of Agriculture building as majestic as this one?

Street art purchased in the park across from the Prado.

Toilet paper art sculpture in Plaza Mayor.

I loved this prominent PSA campaign spread across Madrid:
"Shit sack: Plastic bags jeopardize the lives of many animal species."

* Books read in Spain.
1. Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, Mary Pipher
2. Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, Natalie Goldberg (third read?)
3. Unaccustomed Earth: Stories, Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (and just as it takes him halfway through the book to get to Spain, it took me equally as long to realize I've read this one before. But such a delight to actually read Hemingway in Spain!)
5. The Best American Short Stories 1999, Amy Tan, editor

Spain 2: Yoga retreat.

Sunset over the Sierra de los Filabres.

The first half of my vacation was spent at the Casa Blanca Yoga and Reiki Retreat, in the Andalucia region of southern Spain. A small, family-run, private studio in a traditional Spanish farmhouse, this rural getaway was a restful time for stretching mind and body. A lovely young Londoner and I were the only clients for our five-night stay, assuring us personal attention.

Two hours of yoga in the morning, an hour of reiki in the afternoon, two more hours of yoga before dinner ~ and the time in between filled with reading, writing and chatting over the views of the Spanish countryside, orange and lemon groves with the mountains beyond. Amazing homemade vegetarian meals, served al fresco. Vivid sunsets.

One afternoon we made a side trip to a mineral springs near Baza. I was expecting a hot springs spot within the nearby lake. Instead, we found a lovely 1930s-era pool built to surround the natural springs, jutting out over the lake beyond, surrounded by the Sierra de Baza mountains. A restful, peaceful afternoon.

The retreat was more work than I'd expected ~ not so much the four hours of yoga a day as the slowness of the yoga pace, holding only a few repeated poses for much longer than the athletic flows I'm used to. It was taxing not only physically but mentally. I liked the change of pace. Slow down. Be only in the moment.

Who knew life could move more slowly than it does in Morocco?

Yoga instructor Liz in front of her lovely home and retreat.

Rural Andalucean views.

The hammock where I read away the afternoons.

The (manmade) lake around the hot springs near Baza.

The springs pool.

With Eleanora, my new yoga friend from London.

Stretching out the kinks first thing in the morning.

Walk-up headstand (she only caught me coming out of the pose,
so my toes and back aren't straight).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Anny and me displaying my new rug, designed and woven by the women she works with.

After returning from Spain, I visited my friend Anny's site, a very remote collection ofdwayers (tiny villages) east of Taroudant. Anny is always such a wonderful host ~ a peaceful, cozy home, a courtyard/yoga studio and a kitchen from which the most amazing concoctions come. She's leaving me in a couple of months, her two years of service having come to an end, and I really don't know what I'll do without her.

Members of Anny's weaving association.

The visit was arranged so I could thank the members of the weavers' association she's been working with for the amazing new rug they designed and created for me. The center says "Salam" ~ Peace ~ in Arabic script. It's so beautiful and will be a lifelong reminder of everything I have experienced in Morocco.

The association does amazing work, at reasonable prices, with wool they dye themselves. You can see some of it here and even commission your own order.

We also helped the association hand out sacks of flour and other staples (sugar, tea, etc.) to community members as part of the Ramadan invective to help those less fortunate. It was a beautiful morning, and it felt good to be doing something, no matter how small. The tiny Berber women were appreciative of the help in hauling the heavy flour sacks out to the road; their menfolk would come pick it up by donkey but, the women said, were too embarrassed to be seen accepting charity. Not too embarrassed to send their wives, mothers, grandmothers to do it, however.

Helping load sacks of flour during Ramadan.

Happy 48th birthday, Peace Corps!

On Sept. 22, 1961, President Kennedy signed the act inaugurating Peace Corps.

Unlike anyone in my staj here in Morocco, at least the agency itself is older than I am.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mabruk l3id ~ Happy holiday!

Holiday henna, applied by my "sister" Kabira.

Today and tomorrow are L3id sgir, the "little feast" holiday signaling the end of Ramadan. My Muslim friends no longer have to fast from sunrise to sunset ~ and I no longer have to hide the evidence that I don't fast. That's a relief, as is the knowledge that now, finally, inchallah, the dar chebab will reopen and activities will resume.

But I will miss the evening lftr, the breaking of the fast that brings families together for a traditional Ramadan meal every evening. The past month has been a wonderful bonding experience with my community, as students, friends, neighbors and strangers all invited me into their homes to share their traditions. I had so many invitations I had to turn people down, and I got to see a tender and giving side of many families. I personally can't imagine being so warm and inviting after 14 hours without food or drink.

Today is a day traditionally given to walking through town and visiting friends' homes, a day of too many cookies and even more cups of sugary mint tea than normal. I, however, was actually at work all day. Well, OK, I wasn't exactly working, just keeping my host sister Kabira company at her new hanut.

In between customers, a little art on the side.

Business was slow, it being a holiday, but Kabira's one smart entrepreneur. She knew she'd be one of few places open today, so instead of enjoying the holiday with her family, she chose the option of making a few extra dirhams.

In between customers, she offered to henna my hands, henna being a traditional way of celebrating any event in women's lives. She's a true artist. The designs you see here were drawn freehand, the henna paste stuffed into a syringe and oozed slowly over the skin. Hours later, I returned home to wash off the dark mud, revealing lovely reddish temporary tattoos.

Her own boss.

The big news, though, is the hanut itself. Kabira works harder than anyone I know. She dropped out of school at 16 (she thinks) to help support her family. After years of working at a local patisserie, her job situation recently changed, she lost her autonomy and she became increasingly unhappy.

Rather than wallow, she decided to fulfill a lifelong dream. Somehow she rounded up the financial backing, found a storefront, painted and outfitted and stocked it all by herself, and opened the doors last week. In addition to such staples as milk and eggs, soap and soda, she's baking her own bread and making her own hlwa, the patisserie sweets that dress up the front counter. The rest of the family helps here and there, but this is Kabira's show.

Baking bread ~ 65 loaves today.

The prospects for survival of a small business are as dim here as at home; it's certainly not a given that she'll make a go of it. But she's in a great location, and I've been impressed by how many customers she has already. If anyone can make a go of it, Kabira can.

Song of the day.

I'd never heard of Chico before I heard his song "Curvy Cola Bottle Body" on a recent "Here on Earth" podcast on women's body images around the world. Apparently this Moroccan-Welsh pop singer wrote the tune as a response to the "Size Zero" pro-anorexia movement, and he donated profits from the song to an eating-disorder charity. OK, I'll applaud him for that ~ but the models in the video look plenty thin to me, not to mention that their scanty dress and hshuma dancing aren't exactly a feminist statement.

Watch the video and judge for yourself.

Happy anniversary to me!

It's more than a year now than I landed in Morocco. I can't think of anything to say that isn't a cliche ~ how time flies, look how far we've come, etc. There've been times I didn't think I'd ever feel comfortable here. But this afternoon, drinking tea with my host family, casually waving away the horde of flies, leaning against my host mother's hips, her feet in the small of my back, discussing (in Arabic!) the outrageous price of apples at souk this week, the television blaring over the sheep bleating on the rooftop and the call to prayer in the distance, I realized ... I've wllfted (adjusted). Shwiya.

Keep watching this space.

I know, I know ~ more than two weeks after my return, I still haven't written about my holiday in Spain. An update's on its way, honest. Suffice to say I had an amazing time and have the photos (and a new craving for Spanish accordion music) to prove it. You can see all of my photos on my Flickr page.

Quotes of the day.

“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” — Emily Dickinson (thanks, Joy!)

"Human beings are remarkable — at what we can learn to live with. If we couldn't get strong from what we lose, and what we miss, and what we want and can't have, then we couldn't ever get strong enough, could we? What else makes us strong?" 
— John Irving, “The Hotel New Hampshire” (thanks, Tricia!)

“The future depends on what we do in the present. — Mahatma Gandhi (thanks again, Tricia!)

Currently reading: "A Street in Marrakech," Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (simultaneously comforting and dismaying to read the same difficulties I've experienced adjusting to life here through the eyes of an American family some 40 years ago).
Currently watching: "John Adams" miniseries (fabulous ~ thanks, Anny!)
Currently listening to: lots of Wilco and Gillian Welch, in a pleasantly nostalgic mood lately
Currently drinking: Iced chai (thanks to Anny for the idea, Miz Meleeska for the tea bags, and whoever introduced skim milk to Morocco)
Currently eating: Pasta salad with pesto I made myself, with basil harvested from my own pots ~ I'm gonna have to revise my "I don't cook" disclaimer ...