El Parc Natural del Delta de l’Ebre

25 10 2013
Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre
Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre

The city’s yet new, but weekend nature escapes feel just right. This time, amiga Maite invites me to el Delta del Ebro, Ebre en Catalan.

I have (very) vague memories of Histories of Spain 365 with Chris. There was some mention that the Peninsula was drier than you might expect, and I’m sure there was a quiz question about the major rivers that I missed. I do remember the name Ebro, though. The etymology of Iberian derives from it.

Where fresh meets salt, the shallowest of islands are swallowed up in seagulls. The short cruise we take doesn’t swing by close enough for a proper shot of the birds, but I’m pretty sure I note a faint “Mine? Mine?” in the humid air anyway.

Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre
Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre

Post-boat, we head to Casa de Fusta, an institution in the Delta since 1926. The whole area is covered in swampy rice fields; the grains here are so renowned they actually carry their own D.O.P. to ensure the enthusiast of quality.

We split the menú de desgustación plus a few extra special entrantes between the table. The menú is a wide amalgamation of goodies from the sea, including brandada de bacalao, cigalas y sepia con cebolla y patatas, y arroz caldoso con rape y langostinos.

I’ve been promised that one may enjoy ortiguillas rebozadas – fried anemone – in this area, and so request it. They’re the mysterious breaded gooballs pictured above. Ñam!

Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre
Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre

The terrain here is so flat that people build lookout points to be able to take a proper survey. There are 316 species of birds that make the Delta their home. Elongated necks and beaks can be seen picking about the fields from up here for kilometers.

Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre
Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre

Post-rice feast, we take a much needed long walk on Playa de la Marquesa.

Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre
Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre

Sea to one side, rice to the other, and this tiny strip of sand in between.

Parc Natural del Delta de l'Ebre

Weekends are just so much longer this way.

Cahorros, Granada, and Resilience

9 02 2013

In my continued lack of ability to spend even one weekend available in Madrid, last Friday I hopped a bus to Granada to see great friend and ex-housemate David. His company in Madrid declared bankruptcy several months back, and he’s moving to Chile in a few weeks to seek his fortune as a university professor. I know he’ll find success anywhere, but damn do I wish it could have been here. Santiago’s tougher to impulsively access than Andalucía.

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It was my fourth time visiting Granada, which meant no pesky obligations to See the Sights. The highlight was a morning walk through Cahorros de Monachil, a simple route marked by the occasionally ultra-skinny paths with exaggeratedly low clearance. My miniature frame was built for Cahorros, and I found glee gnoming my way around the rock overhangs.

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I shudder in the wake of David’s impending move. It isn’t just that my current closest friend in the city is moving on, although that’s certainly a cinematically appropriate motif (see: Heather, Alexandra, Sevi, James, Sean. y’all reading? miss. <3). Like all such nagging undercurrents of melencholia, this one has multiple roots. The homestretch of wintertime is one, I know. Ditto yet another year as an English auxiliar, which I find rewarding in a few ways but terribly restricting in others.

I keep circling around the verb to invest, attempting to clarify just what it is that merits meaningful deposits, along with how that might be done. How do I act on the micro level of the present such that it supports a macro level image of the future? Because my premonitions are big (huge), I refuse to downsize, refuse to settle. However, this kind of massive payout simply doesn’t result from getting cozy.

One recent struggle has been with the idea of being alone versus acting as a lone agent. It’s not easy for me to get interpersonally vulnerable, even though I do see that there’s much value that can come out of such a state. I keep flirting with it, possibly to my own detriment. I feel swallowed up by the intensity of emotions set free, by allowing felt truth its full and natural space. The response ought not be to withdraw, I’m convinced, even though it’s admittedly my primary impulse. Rather, the aim is resilience.

Dynamicism (I don’t care that that word doesn’t seem to mean what I wish it meant. You get me.) used to be my rallying call, embracing curly-haired chaos by its golden locks, a holographic double rainbow whirling dervish, reveling in the unpredictable intensity of both the pain and the glory. That lustful seed’s always been within me, cultivated by Bangkok and imported to Madrid. I do treasure it, but I no longer identify with it, and I think that’s why it’s felt so achingly empty as of late when I overhear myself chanting refrains more hollow than hallowed.

Springiness, malleability, flexibility, adaptability. Indefatigability. Intestinal fortitude, dammit. Moxie. Guts. The truth will not swallow me, no. I will cook truth over open flame for dinner, accompany it with a bottle of Bierzo, beam it out from my glossy painted fingernails. Time and truth combined are a resource more precious than any other, and I’m lucky enough to have both in spades. These are what I will invest. Watch me take them and run.

Bienvenue à Marrakech.

23 03 2012

Pour some (organic, free range) vinegar on my rusted-over blogging gears, baby: a brisk madrileño dawn heralds my first Blog Day since last summer’s family reunion in the Northeastern US. I rise, I coffee, I shine. I troop halfway to MP’s B&B before AbFab’s sage travel wisdom has me do a speedy 180. Passport. Got to have the passport.

MP has her own passport scare – too many bags with too many pockets – but we eventually get our act together, motor up to Cibeles, and hop the Express Bus to Barajas.

Awaiting our arrival is Ryanair’s red carpet, decked out with Spanish youth groups and their neon luggage. We end up cutting it rather close, but who cares – you already know that with Ryanair, payment is not in euros, but in blood/sweat/tears.

After filtering past passport control – at which some passengers are detained extensively, and we are ushered through without a hitch – we immediately meet Yusef, our driver from Riad Kniza. Small talk is attempted (I live in Madrid, are you from Marrakech, wow this weather is like Arizona, etc etc), but mostly we are reeling with the pressing question: Whoaaaaa – where are we??

I’ve been informed by a couple buddies who have ventured down south before that Morocco is like absolutely nothing they have experienced before. There’s seemingly so much tourism between Madrid and Marrakech that one might assume a great deal of similarities (youth hostels, kitschy little bars, expats), but it’s immediately obvious from the mouth-agape ride in from the airport that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Yusef stops just inside the walls of the old city and leads us directly into the fray. Tourists are serious sore thumbs in the social landscape here, and we get a small taste of how little we know about the system surrounding us here. I try not to gibber.

Not a minute into our jaunt to the Riad, MP squeaks out in surprise. Eyeballs popping and disbelieving grin of shock kissed with a touch of horror on her face: “Janel…! I almost just stepped on a chicken head.”

Bienvenue à Marrakech.

Yusef drops us off slack-jawed at the Riad, where the receptionist beckons us forward to one of many cool, dusky alcoves, decorated in exquisitely detailed Moroccan style. Would we care for mint tea and almond paste sweets? We would.

Riad Kniza differentiates itself through being wholly Moroccan-owned; this and its exceptional reviews are what have drawn us to select it as our home base. I’d say the architecture is reminiscent of what we’ve seen at La Alhambra, but it feels massively remiss to do so – I’ve been told that the gorgeous stone detail there is in large part modern restoration. What lies before us here is the Real Deal, the Genuine Article. It doesn’t get any more authentic, and I mean that without any trace of hipster irony.

We’re led up to our suite, which is replete with carefully placed rose petals and stray wisps of smoky incense.

MP enters the bedchamber and begins to gesture frantically.

This is what she sees, an elborately carved cupola destined to hang directly over our sleeping heads.

We’ve requested a tajine lunch at the Riad, which we elect to enjoy upon the roof terrace despite the surging heat. Further rose petals have been arranged on our table into miniature flowering designs.

Lunch opens with a chicken pastilla, savory meat mixed with ground and toasted almonds, wrapped in a layer of crunchy filo dough and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The cheery waiter enthusiastically implores us to “Discover! Explore! Enjoy!” but the verb I’d choose is “Devour.”

What follows is a spread of cold salads accompanied by hot golden circles of fresh harcha, plus beef, chicken, and seafood packets wrapped in filo dough and fried. Clockwise from the bottom left, the salads are sweet tomato with sesame and cinnamon, zucchini, potato, pumpkin and almond, eggplant, olives, and roasted green pepper.

The olives are playfully bitter and intense, completely distinct in character from their Spanish counterpart. Can one live on olives alone? I volunteer myself as test subject. MP favors the smoky eggplant bathed in olive oil.

We comment that we could be contented simply with the salads, and that the tajine will surely come as unwarranted and excessive. And yet, somehow, we are swayed by velvety lamb accented by dried apricots, plums, and figs, plus scattered almonds and walnuts. It soon becomes obvious why the seats are sprawling couches, and we take full advantage of the space to stretch out our bulging bellies.

Mirrors reflect our gastronomic bliss.

Oh my god, there’s a dessert. We can’t but we can.

Ktefa is a pastilla of creme anglaise, ground almonds, and filo dough. Its icy cool sweetness cuts through the midday heat.

Wracked by consumption, our bodies tell us to be slothful, but we refuse – on deck is a guided afternoon tour of the city. We meet our man Aziz at the front desk, and are whisked out into the hustle/bustle.

Aziz explains that there are just a few main walking streets that run through the old city, but they are bordered by scores of dead end streets called “derbs” (tee hee). Our derb is conveniently called “Derb L’Hotel,” and Aziz constantly checks our fledgling city bearings by asking us the way we might get back to it.

Our way down to the Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza consists of Aziz tossing bits and pieces of Marrakech history our way as we dodge wildly swerving bike, scooter, car, and donkey-cart traffic. We pass the oldest hammam in the city, with separate entrances and hours according to gender.

Nothing in the city is permitted to be higher than the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Oversize loudspeakers visible in its windows send out the call to prayer five times daily – which in relatively liberal Marrakech is heeded to varying degrees based on individual preference.

The road connecting Koutoubia with Jemaa el-Fnaa is lined by donkey carts for hire.

During the day, the plaza is mostly empty – we’ve arrived around 16.00, and the nightly food stalls are just now being set up. Aziz explains that the space will be overflowing with entertainers of all variety come evening, and that we should be cautious about taking photos – performers are very sharp about spotting cameras, and will demand subsequent payment.

As an on-the-spot demonstration, I snap this shot of what was meant to be simply of the general atmosphere. The guy in red garb comes directly up to us after, demanding “Photo? Photo? Photo? Photo?” I ignore him, but have a feeling Aziz’s suited presence is the only condition that finally causes the guy to give up.

Vendors, on the other hand, are for the most part okay to photograph, and I take advantage of Aziz to repeatedly inquire as to the appropriateness of each shot. I can’t help it; the lens feels intrusive.

In one corner of the square, all of the carts are orr’an juice an’ wadder. (no plantain chips)

Surreptitious shots are also always an option. Aziz explains that these guys dress in drag for belly dancing in the evening. No way – I’ll believe it when I see it.

We delve into the souks with aplomb – easy to do with a guide. The tangled knot of streets here is overflowing with sensory input.

Colors abound.

Every turn of the head is another unbelievable array of line and light.

The souks are somewhat organized by product, but that doesn’t keep them from being absolutely overwhelming to the newcomer. We are practically struck dumb.

Aziz leads us to a carpet shop he associates with. Every square centimeter of the place is saturated with color and pattern. A couple ladies in the back weave endlessly at looms – one more, this appears to be the Real Deal.

MP quickly makes a new friend in the shopkeeper, who, with all due respect, is one slick dog of a salesman. He piles on the flattery as high as the carpets, and his assistants roll out one priceless piece after another.

We are served mint tea, and we are prompted for our aesthetic and tactile opinions.

As to whether any pieces were purchased, that’s simply going to have to remain under the rug.

Some parts of the souks are more out in the open; Aziz recommends extended observation of the whole scene from atop a cafe. Just below the famous Le Café des épices is the spice section of the markets.

Grizzled ladies here sell woven hats and powdered henna, which is an unexpected shade of pale green before combining with water.

Aziz has an associate here too, purveyor of an unbelievable selection of spices, herbs, pigments, and medicines.

He explains some of the most interesting/easily confused specialties to us, including how to differentiate genuine saffron from fakeouts.

The mounds of cumin, paprika, ginger, coriander, and chile have me chomping at the bit.

The variety nears the point of absurdity. I could spend several lifetimes in just this one store.

Plenty of the products are meant for beauty rather than consumption; the shopkeep spots my streak of eyeliner and shows off a glittery gray specimen of his own.

Skins of all sorts are also available here. Aziz explains that these are believed to have medicinal value of their own, ranging from asthma reduction to warding off the evil eye.

As night pulls in around us, we dive into the workshop section of the souks.

This area is sparsely populated by passerby, and we spy not a single tourist. It’s in these corridors that the large majority of the goods on sale are actually fabricated.

To use the term “fabricated” combined with the passive voice, however, gives me pause. Aziz calls them “the makers.” In each of these narrow nooks we find at least one, but more frequently two or more men (I saw no women) completely focused on the production of some material good. A young muscled-armed man painting chemicals on leather to cure it different colors. A long bearded one guiding fabric through a sewing machine spooling thread from a contraption wired into the ceiling. A child – had to be about eight years old – piecing together sandal parts with his father.

The most striking of all to me was a guy in a chair in the walkway, hunched over a golden bowl and hammering it with a metal point to produce thousands upon thousands of tiny patterned dents in its surface.

You see these things in shops, and you think “Oh, beautiful.” You are told they are “handmade” and “artisanal,” which somehow equates to value, but still neglects to directly connect the elaborate object with the visceral hours of actual human work that go into its production.

This isn’t meant as any sort of condemnation (nor lauding) of any kind – merely commentary on how tangible the trail of production suddenly seemed to me upon walking through the realm of the makers.

The blacksmithing section is all noise and flying sparks.

And this is the result – scores of precious metal objects for sale, from the useful to the purely artistic.

Our plan is to stave off shopping until Saturday, when we can wholly dedicate the morning to it.

There’s just so much here; I’m sure we would have theoretically managed without a guided introduction, but it’s certainly given us much more confidence in terms of the hours of haggling ahead of us. I ask once again: Where are we?

We emerge back into Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza, in full swing now that darkness has descended. Lo and behold, the seated geezers from before actually have transformed into wriggling belly dancers, albeit transparently cross-dressed ones. Spectators are not in short supply.

The food stalls are fully set up as well, buzzing with knowledgeable locals and daring foreigners alike. Our original plan this evening was to be amongst the latter half – sheep’s head, anyone? – but we are a) seriously stuffed from lamb lunch, and b) wary regarding a plethora of accounts of food poisoning. As such, we stick with pictures, for this trip anyway.

There’s a whole row of snail vendors in the center of the food stalls. Three dirhams is about 0.30 euro – wonder how many slimy little beasties you get for it.

Aziz asks us if there’s anywhere else we’d like to be shown, but we find ourselves rather racked and in need of a quick repose. He walks with us back to Riad Kniza, and we thank him profusely and part ways.

The plan this evening is to get dolled up and check out La Mamounia, a five-star hotel just barely open enough to the public to allow the well-dressed in for drinks. We hoof it there by following the outside of the Old City wall, still managing to slightly lose our way but at least dodging the majority of the potential harassment. Funny – both of us have opted for looks that would be exceedingly conservative in Madrid, but here heeled boots and black stockings feel nearly scandalous.

What adjective to choose? Imposing, incredible, immaculate? We decide the word is “opulent.” It feels like an extremely high-budget movie set, and unquestionably an entirely separate world from what lays just beyond its guarded front gate. Two tall men swathed in scarlet capes flank the entrance, theatrically opening the doors for us as we tiptoe inside, attempting very much to put on a bit of an air.

We nestle into a select outdoor spot, and are served roasted peanuts, spiced hazelnuts, and the best olives I’ve ever had: dinner.

Each chooses something to sip on from the Créations menu – a sage margarita for me, hibiscus cosmo for MP. The boozy warmth of the floral and herbaceous drinks curls pleasingly about the cool night air.

Our dessert course is a glass of Moroccan cabernet sauvignon called Volubilia, which we take inside next to a live three-piece jazz crew.

We could envision ourselves spending a solid several days on the decadent Mamounia grounds, drinking it all in – but elect to retire for the night, as we have big plans for Friday. At the front desk, we request a taxi back to Riad Kniza, and are assisted by none other than a caped crusader.

There simply aren’t enough adjectives. You can’t capture it all. We aren’t going to try.

I dream a little desert dream, nestled beneath our cupola.

GUEST INTERVIEW: Talking Thailand with Gee, Cassandra

7 03 2012

Co-Fulbrighter Casey Gambill’s Gee, Cassandra blog is one of the most professional and entertaining out there examining the Spanish experience. Her keen photographic eye provides consistently engaging imagery to illustrate her frequently amusing, ever-accurate observations of Spanish customs and culture in and out of the classroom. I’m lucky to have her as blogger comrade-in-arms, and was honored when she approached me a few weeks ago regarding the possibility of putting together a guest interview for her having to do with my experience teaching English in Thailand.

Just go. If you’re looking to teach English, living very well is quite easy. Get ready for nothing to be like you expect; come with mind and heart open. Do not forget your dancing shoes.

… respect/celebrate the culture around you as much as possible, in as many directions as that takes you: doing the wai, attempting a Thai-spicy som tam, being invited to midday karaoke and whiskey on the side of a mountain road while hitchhiking up north…

In the full interview, I manage to also hit on the joy of mangosteen, the usefulness of the phrase of phet phet mak, the glory of the klong boat public transport system, and the importance of having interests beyond buckets of Red Bull-vodka. Read it here.

Fotopost: Birkenfeld, Germany

3 02 2012

Friend Sevi invites me and two other amigos to her home in Birkenfeld, Germany one January weekend. Fireplace and food is promised.

Birkenfeld is teeny, but the house is sprawling and immaculate.

The white sea of walls is frequently interrupted by a spectrum of oil paints and book spines.

This is a place apart, a world unto itself.

Magic abounds here, whether in the form of glittering golden crowns —

— or German bread breakfast. Salty croissants pair best with avocado, cool sliced cucumber, and tomato-pesto tapenade.

We are at ease here. Everyone settles into their element. Morning light floods gently over crisp country air; we bask and read, stirring little.

Until the beat strikes us, of course.

Adventure out means a Trier afternoon. The sun loves us.

And we love it right back.

Dining is organic, a take on ratatouille with polenta bathed in thick, tart tomato.

Trier is pleasingly German in architecture, a breath of fresh Deutsch air away from Spanish aesthetics.

The town cathedral is appropriately, imposingly gothic.

The outing is capped by ice cream sundaes and iPhones. We deal with it.

Our hosts are as generous as they are photogenic. We can’t stop thanking them for their overwhelming kindness shown in not only opening their home to us, but tending to our every possible detailed need —

— such as smiley face crepes in the morning.

A jaunt around Birkenfeld is sleepy, chatty, and intriguing in a distinctly small-town-Germany way. Sevi insists there’s naught to be seen, but each coat of paint on wrought iron grating is new to us.

There’s a quiet retro-beauty here, old and calm, far from glamorous. To call it quaint would diminish; we find it comfortable. It’s an escape, an invitation into an unagitated life for the briefest of stays.

We have a beer, or two, because it’s Germany and we must.

Berlin: die Nacht

22 09 2011

First you need Club-Mate, sugared caffeinated half-liter tea-bomb. You will be on your game.

Then you hit up a kiosk again for beers and balls. On second thought, scratch the balls. On second second thought…

Tote said beers plus barbeque fixings to awaiting park party. Marvel at decency of Hefeweissen/banana juice combo. Proceed to play with fire, then enjoy the meaty fruits of your labor. Wish you had perfected the art of portable hot sauce by now.

Allow evening to slide into night.

Strut into exclusive art party held in what appears to your night vision to be a warehouse in the forest. When confronted as to whether you are on the list, gesticulate exasperatedly and grandly declare yourself to be with the person in front of you (as though that weren’t obvious). Take subsequent advantage of open bar.

Escape into nearby park to indulge in ghostly moonlit highjinks.

Wind down in Some Bar Somewhere. Let night’s apparitions seep their way into the smoke.

Berlin: In Which I Venture North

22 09 2011

Just as August approaches its close, a golden invitation wings its characteristically unexpected way into my life. Dear friend Pennie, with whom I spent many months adventuring in Bangkok over a year ago, has plans to attend a global education conference based in Berlin. Might I like to come see the city?

It was back in wintry January that the idea of Berlin as a sweet summer destination entered my pretty lil’ head; however, as they are wont to do, far-in-advance plans became beautifully sidetracked by spring surprises. The Pennie-prompting is all the push I need to book my flights.

My experience thus far with European capitals: Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and my beloved Madrid. Berlin looks nothing like any of these. Particularly in comparison to the Spanish center, the city feels spacious, each and every path including a wide bike lane. There are intersections where bicycles dominate, and pedestrians and cars alike show enormous respect for the sanctity of the reserved space. The public transportation system here is excellent, sublime in its clockwork connections between trams, buses, and both above- and below-ground metro, but there is an enormous sense of freedom in mobility by bike, one which I most notably experience in a 3:00 AM wild ride back to an awaiting bed.

The bikes are ubiquitous, and often beautifully personalized.

Eyes open, the city is replete with treasure.

Berlin is an undeniable street art mecca; the immediate impression that every available surface has been coated in color and form is soon corrected when it appears to double 24 hours later. There are some seriously stunning pieces here, several impressive in sheer several-story size, others innovative in elaborate design and execution. There is plenty of paint, but also loads of paste-ups and chip art (wherein an image is constructed in negative, painstakingly chipping flecks away from whatever coats a surface); an informal walking tour I take informs that many pieces are done by artists who specifically pass through the city aiming to leave their signature style on its streets.

Obviously, expression isn’t limited to spray painted wall bombings; wallpapered posters everywhere proclaim a plethora of exhibitions inhabiting the most unassuming corners of city blocks. I pass through one taking up residence in what appears to be a dilapidated tenement of some variety, advertised as Die Revolution Im Dienste Der Poesie (Revolution in the Name of Poetry). The mixed-media collection revolves around the theme in its title, coupled with a load of historical context presented in a “newspaper” available at the door. Of course, being in German, this escapes me entirely, and I’m contented checking out the details of a revolutionist’s take on a still life.

Infamous five-story art squat Tacheles raises queries regarding creative legitimacy, as it represents at once the city’s libertine expression of youth and a prime piece of real estate. The place is visually resplendent in its freewheeling glory (naturally I’m informed that “it was better five years ago”) and acrid in its stairwell scent; seems the big bad government has recently shut off the water in a push to convert the space to something more commercially suited for the downtown zoning.

It’s probably evident in my tongue-in-cheek wording: I find the whole David-and-Goliath storytelling to be rather blown out of proportion. I too would like to see official support for free community art displays, but my gut tells me Tacheles continues to be successful because of its mythology.  The area doesn’t need another touristy pub there whatsoever, but the auctioning of the place would certainly turn a pretty penny – which ideally could be funneled into social programs. Berlin’s identity appears to be ever in flux, but I have no doubt that the displaced creative energy would pack its tools and pop up elsewhere.

This is only one tourist’s opinion. What’s your take?