Made it to Marrakech!

I have always had a strong desire to go to Morocco. After missing the chance the first time I lived in Spain, I told myself I could not leave again without visiting. With only a few weekends in Europe remainly, I grabbed a couple of tickets to Marrakech and me and Gabe were off last Friday afternoon.

Welcome to Marrakech!

Thankfully I have a couple of friends who just went and  gave me great tips regarding where to stay and what to do. One recommended theRiad Maison Belbaraka for lodging. Riads are old houses that have since been converted into places to stay, undoubtedly beating out any hostel or hotel. Ours conveniently provided transportation to and from the airport, a gorgeous room and an amazing dinner on their terrace the first night.

And I have to mention the breakfast every morning. Freshly baked breads, chocolate cake, cheese, fig and strawberry jam, honey and freshly squeezed orange juice to our hearts content.They also helped us arrange our excursion for Saturday. We headed to the High Atlas Mountains to see waterfalls, safely in the hands of a friendly Berber guide. We left in the morning and made many stops along the way including a Berber house where we were treated to bubbling mint tea, a very common drink here that is delicious and refreshing despite the fact it is boiling hot outside.Then, we pulled off onto the side of the road for a camel ride.Walked back and forth across a rather scary bridge (still not sure why).And eventually arrived in Siti Fatima, a Berber village at the foot of the mountain. We were passed off to a younger guide who led us into the mountains towards the waterfalls. Along the way we saw many restaurants and spaces for people to hangout mid-hike.

Then we made it to one of the many waterfalls that was gorgeous.I must say that this was no easy, trail-blazed hike. Instead, we were scaling rocks and sliding down dusty hills. Word to the wise: Don’t wear Toms. Although I do think I was managing a bit better than those I saw in flip-flops.

Afterwards, we relaxed at a restaurant by the river where we had some traditional Moroccan food. On the way back to Marrakech, we had our driver drop us off at the Majorelle Gardens. It was not big but definitely pretty with more kinds of cactus than I have ever seen before.

We rested up a bit before heading back to the Djemaa El-Fna, the big plaza which comes alive at night with food stalls and plenty of people swearing that theirs is the absolute best. Well, we actually did find a pretty good one (which we picked based on all the locals eating at it) and walked away full on only 8 Euros for the both of us.

We also managed to do some haggling in the souks. I walked away with a pair of brown flats and a small purse which I talked down to half the price! If I did not have to worry about luggage space, I think I would have bought a lot more. From the lamps to bags to tagines, the amount of things for sale (and cheap) is absolutely mind-blowing. Regardless, I’m happy to say I made it out with a little bit!

Once we got back to our riad, we relaxed with a wine made in Morocco. But not just any wine- gray wine.

Although Muslims do not drink, I read that they have a rather good wine industry going on. This bottle definitely a unique flavor with a bit of citrusy tang to it. I would happily drink it again.

Sunday we woke up with not much planned but since we did not explore all of Marrakech yet, we took to the streets and checked out the Saadian tombs, spice market, El Bahia Palace and got a closer look at the Koutoubia mosque.

That night we headed to Cafe Arabe, a restaurant that kept seeming to pop up in every article I read about Marrakech. It is a three-story space with, again, a beautiful terrace, and also one of the few restaurants that serves alcohol, making it very popular with tourists. We found ourselves amongst many but that did not bother me. The food was pretty good and cheap considering all that we ate and the setting was perfect.

We had Monday morning and early afternoon to relax before flying back to Madrid. Overwhelmed with the crazy city by this point (and all out of Dirhams), we had some tea and pastries at our hostel and a quick walk around.

Overall, I am very happy I finally made it to Morocco and was even more thankful to have a French-speaking travel companion. While most locals are used to tourists and can speak almost every language, French is their second language (after Arab), so the fact that Gabe could fully communicate with just about everyone made it a lot easier. Lots of people said it would be dangerous, but I never felt threatened (especially when you see so many other tourists walking around). People sure are pushy when it comes to trying to get you to check out their souk and buy something, but once you learn to embrace (or just ignore) that, it is not bad. From the prayers five times a day that are heard all around the city (it’s broadcasted over huge speakers from the main mosque) to snake charmers and thousands of motorcycles buzzing around the streets, it is definitely unlike any place I have ever been but enlightening, nevertheless.

Plus, now I can say I have stepped foot in Africa!


Carnaval: Part 2

As I mentioned earlier, my school celebrated Carnaval too this week. On Wednesday, all the classes dressed up and we had a parade through Estremera. Each class had a specific theme from Spongebob to Star Wars and I have to admit everybody’s costumes impressed me. All of the parents walked along with us and it ended in a plaza with the burning of a giant paper fish. Each child contributed a scale in which they wrote on the back what they want to rid themselves of. Most of them said something along the lines of behaving better which I can only hope materializes. I’ve come to find that in such a small town, they have to find ways to have some fun and this was certainly a shining example.

I’ll be honest, I did enjoy myself thoroughly although I couldn’t help but laugh listening to the same songs I heard at 4 in the morning at a club in Cadiz last weekend at 4 in the afternoon in a plaza in Estremera. The environment was definitely different but the spirit of Carnaval alive! Check out the slideshow to catch a glimpse of all the cuties I work with.

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Real Madrid Has Two Teams?

I am not going to lie, since I have been in Madrid I have been watching more football than ever before. That’s because along with my Hurricanes (who had a rather rough season) and the couple Steelers games that I have been able to catch, I have become an active follower of Real Madrid. Sure you can knock me for following the “Yankees of soccer,” but it’s not my fault they are the best.

When we first came here, my roommates and I made it a quick point to find a local bar to be our go-to spot to watch games but sometimes (like last weekend), UM and Real Madrid played at the same time so I ended up watching both at once at a friend’s apartment.And it turns out I have some pretty cool friends who choose to take me places. Last week I got invited to go to a Real Madrid basketball game. It’s kind of confusing with both sports teams playing by the same name but it also adds some solidarity to the city which I like. So unlike everyone in the US deprived of some basketball action, I got to see a game with even some American players on the team:It was definitely different from American basketball. The game seemed a bit slower, the entire environment wasn’t as “flashy” as I’d consider American arenas to be, and the periods were only ten minutes each. Regardless, people got into it and I still had a good time watching…

But I have to admit, I was really excited when another friend offered me a ticket to the Real Madrid football game this past Tuesday. When I studied abroad here, I got to go to one game and we were high above in the nose bleeds:This time, however, we were a lot closer and it was a lot easier to follow and get in on the action. The team we were playing was not so great so when we left (ten minutes early) the score was 6-0 and we were playing our B-team the whole time. By the end, the other team managed to score two goals but I didn’t see that part.Now that the Hurricanes are done for the season, it seems as if Real Madrid may be my last hope for sports redemption. The team is doing better this year than in the recent past and a big contender for some championships which I am hoping comes to fruition because there’s nothing that will get Spaniards celebrating more than a football victory.

In the Meantime…

It’s an interesting time to be working in the public school system of Spain. All of the schools are facing budget cuts, forcing the teachers to have two more contact hours a week and reducing the time they can devote to other menial tasks like grading papers, preparing lesson plans, etc. It also bans the temporary hiring of teachers which certainly does not help the staggering 21 percent unemployment rate that Spain currently touts. In light of all this, there have been many demonstrations throughout the city center, one of which took place last Friday. According to my school, coming to work that day was optional for all teachers and only one did not show up. Even so, only about half of the students came meaning class was not really in session and instead, lots of time was spent on the playground, watching movies, and any other activity to keep the kids occupied until 4:30. While walking home from the bus later that afternoon, I was met by the sound of whistles and yelling and then saw this: There were SO many teachers, students, and families alike parading the streets in protest of the cuts. On Saturday, there was an even bigger demonstration with tens of thousands of people involved. Through it all, the government seems pretty resistant towards change so it will be interesting to see how everything pans out.

In the meantime, this past week I gave my first afterschool class to a group of six students which is definitely a different experience than attempting to command the attention of a larger class. I am going to start giving these classes Monday and Tuesday which means I get home later but it’s also a good way to make extra money while also helping out the kids. So far, this four day weekend has been spent eating delicious food, watching the Real Madrid and UM games, hitting up Kapital (Madrid’s seven story nightclub) for the first time, and catching up with some friends.

I also partook in my first official Intercambio Friday afternoon with a 27 year old girl. For those who may not know, an intercambio (in my case) involves sitting down with someone who wants to improve their English and talking in half-English and half-Spanish. While it’s probably in my head, I feel like since I’ve gotten here my Spanish has not gotten any better so I feel meetings like this will be the best way to help me improve my speaking! We met at Starbucks and talked for about an hour and it was fun and also put me at ease about having more meetings like this! In fact, I am planning on having another one tomorrow with a 23 year old girl. If anything, it’s a great way to meet Spanish people which I made one of my top priorities this time around!

Today, me and the roomies took the time to walk around the city center (to be honest, we stuffed ourselves at brunch and needed to walk around to aide digestion but the first sentence sounds better). Sometimes living here you forget all the deep history and awesome sights there are to see so I’ve now promised myself to refresh myself on the city’s history. If anything, it’s a better excuse for you to come visit me soon… You won’t even need to hire a tour guide!

The Little Town of Estremera

When you look up Estremera on Google Maps, it doesn’t take long to catch on that there is not much to this tiny town. I tried to scope out any information about the place before my first day, but realized it would take some firsthand observing to truly see what it has to offer. While my past few days have mainly been spent here: I took time during my break today to wander the village and see what else is around. I encountered a whole lot of streets that look like this: Actually, they are having a “huge” festival this weekend so there are lots of lights around like this wishing everyone Felices Fiestas, or Happy Holidays: So you truly see that there is a whole lot of nothing around this place, here’s a picture of the outskirts: So there ya go… It doesn’t look like much but apparently it’s enough to organize a long series of celebrations that warrants me a six day weekend. All around town there are tents set up including bumper cars, stages, food vendors and more so I guess this time of year is when all the people will emerge from there homes to celebrate! If all this excitement has got you curious for more you can check out their website here.

Although I’m not going to lie… Despite the two hour commute, I’m still happy I live in Madrid.

On the plus side…

I haven’t experienced jet lag since I got to Madrid!

Traveling abroad, I’m never sure if jet lag is going to kick in or not. To me, it’s always been mind over matter (that meaning if you are not constantly thinking about how you should be jet lagged, then it just won’t happen). Either way, since I arrived at 8 a.m. yesterday morning, I made it through a total of 13 hours of orientation and have been running on a reasonably normal schedule.

To say that everything has been all roses would be a lie. When I left Denver I checked two bags and was pleasantly surprised when my third carry-on was checked in for being a tad too wide when I arrived at the gate. For me, that just meant less weight to worry about lugging around on my three hour layover in Miami. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Madrid, I watched the baggage carousel go round and round until every suitcase was gone and I was left with nothing. Apparently, my bags never left Miami.

Despite the fact the fine folks at Iberia promised me they would all arrive at my apartment doorstep within 24 hours, it has been over 40 and I have yet to see them. Needless to say, this wasn’t something I ever anticipated happening and am just crossing my fingers everything gets worked out by tomorrow. I must say the only good thing that has come of it is the fifty Euro stipend per day I get that bought me a good days worth of outfits (one for daytime and another for night) at H&M. While that was nice, I’d still give anything to have my three bags back right about now.

Aside from the drama, being back in Madrid has felt great. While I’m still not sure what my exact role will be in the classroom next Monday, we were instructed today that we “must only speak English while teaching.” Easy enough I suppose.

Until my own stuff arrives, I’ve been trying to settle into our new apartment in other ways. Thankfully, it’s not too far away from where I lived when I studied abroad so I’m semi-familiar with the area and find that I remember more about it as I wander around.

With Orientation down the drain, the next few days will be spent doing menial things like getting my bank account set-up, applying for a metro/bus pass, and hopefully unpacking my bags.

Healthcare Headache!

My hand is unable to grasp a pen right now. Why you may ask? Because I have been tightly clenching a black pen all day long, frantically trying to write the definitions of words like “dual eligible” and “entitlement program” out one final time. I had my mid-term this afternoon for my class “U.S. Healthcare Crisis: The Politics of Healthcare Reform.” It’s taught by the President of UM, Donna Shalala, who was Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, so who better to take a class from?

President Clinton AND President Shalala

When I realized I would be able to squeeze it into my schedule, I jumped at the opportunity knowing that I knowing nothing about healthcare when I really should. It’s only once a week, but provides plenty of work in terms of reading and cramming in new information through videos, articles, and podcasts. Especially at a time when health care is in the news each and every day, we are constantly being sent recent newspaper articles and given updates on the twists and turns of possible legislation.

Despite this constant enlightenment, when I sat down to truly study last night, I realized I still did not have a clue what was going on. As I looked at the pages and pages of notes before me, I became more than anxious. All day long I have been studying and reviewing like a mad woman, nervous about what the 50 multiple choice and 5 short answers questions might consist of. Thinking about what possible short answer questions could appear, “How should we reform healthcare?” instantly came to my mind. Racking my brain for what I would answer if this question did show up, I realized that: I have no idea.

Public insurance, HMOs, PPOs, Medicare Advantage… it’s all a jumble and forms our patchwork system of healthcare here in the US. How do we save the system to keep people insured and cared for? I really don’t know. I wish I had some set plan, a concrete idea of what I think Obama should propose this very moment, but even still, I don’t feel like I am educated enough to know what is going on. Even when we discuss it in class, I feel like every proposal has some backlash or reprecussion that makes it not a good idea. Truthfully, it scares me.

But let me tell you, if anything, this makes me want to stay healthy for as long as possible!