Friday, April 27, 2012
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Friday, April 20, 2012
Expenses, Day 26:
Churros con chocolate: 4.00
Phone albergue: 2.00
Provisions + Dinner + Dessert: 11.00
Trip Total: 595.60
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Sorrento is located near the end of a peninsula to the south of Napoli and Vesuvius. Like most cities in this part of the world, it was originally settled by the Phoenicians. The city sits on a sheer cliff above the water that is broken only by a narrow ravine coming down from the mountains. A road winds up through several switchbacks to the main plaza of the city, which stretches from one side of the ravine to the other. Underneath it has been filled with buildings, a mishmash of masonry from different centuries that results in a number of clubs below street level that are accessible on by narrow iron staircases clinging to the side of the cliff.
The city itself is an upscale collection of plastered buildings in various pastel shades. Sorrento has the appearance of a refuge for those who enjoy a bit of peace and quiet (and have to money to go find it). We had some of the best food of my life later that evening . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The easiest way to get around in this region is a narrow gauge railway called the Circumvesuviana. A variety of lines operate out of Napoli, and Sorrento is one of the three final stops. It was pouring rain when I left the ship, and by the time I found the station I was soaked through to the skin – never before have I missed my camino gear quite so much (it isn’t that my street shoes leak so much as they suck the water in and distribute it amongst my toes as equally as possible). But I didn’t know when I’d have another chance to see Pompeii, and figuring that I couldn’t really get much wetter anyway I decided to push on.
The Circumvesuviana is an Italian railroad in the three most important senses of the term – it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s covered in graffiti. A luxury travel experience it was not, but two euros and ten cents bought me a plastic bucket seat to Pompeii that got there a lot faster than any bus would have. The tunnels and bridges seemed to be competing with one another to see who could occupy the greatest amount of trackage. The terrain was so rough that one station was located literally in midair, on an arched bridge high over a valley floor, while another was located midway through a tunnel like a subway. We sped through it all – groves of orange trees with their black tarpaulins dripping in the rain, old castles built of red brick, and churches of pale stucco with laundry hanging to dry under corrugated awnings.
The station for the Pompeii ruins (Pompeii Scavi, the modern city is spelled with only one “i”) left me practically on the doorstep of the archaeological site. The modern city surrounds the ruins, but as nearly the entire Roman city is still intact the ruins are so large as to make one forget that there are real buildings with real people living in them only a short distance away. After renting an audioguide (free admission due to national culture week!) I made my way past the suburban bathing complex (incomplete at the time of the eruption) and through the city walls into Pompeii.
Pompeii requires one to readjust their concept of visiting an archaeological site. In most cases, such a site may be a building or two, or a city block, where three or four layers of masonry are all that’s left of the various buildings (which have then been built over time and time again in the two thousand years since). Usually I’m left squinting at the displays, looking back and forth between the ruins and the sketches trying to figure out just exactly which part of the fishery I’m standing in. Barcelona has a site much like this near the old cathedral – underground, a block of the old roman city has been unearthed, but as the different centuries are all muddled together the foundation of a church may also be the corner of a bakery, built from the reused materials of the first city wall. It can be a bit like seeing in four dimensions at once.
Pompeii is not at all like that. When I stepped through the gate, I found myself on a street, lined on either side with buildings, stretching out towards the forum. There was a sidewalk on both sides, and places where pedestrians could cross without going all the way down into the street by way of huge stepping stones (the gaps between them allowed chariots to pass through). The tops of most of the buildings were missing, of course, as the pyroclastic flow had swept them away, but in some of the lower parts of the city the buildings had intact second stories as well.
And there is no prescribed path that visitors must follow – the whole city is there, just waiting to be explored. I found myself free to wander as I wanted, and that’s what I did – down side streets, through the back entrances of homes, and around interior gardens (the city was so well preserved that plaster casts were taken of the petrified plant roots to determine what types of trees and shrubs had been used, and in many cases Pompeii has been replanted with the modern equivalents). Most buildings were brick or stone, covered in plaster that was then decorated. Bits and pieces of paintings have survived – a line of red trim, a plaster cornice. One villa, the home of a wine merchant, was filled with huge clay jars used to store his product (the vineyard behind it has been replanted and produces a wine known today as Villa del Misterioso).
The baths were particularly notable. Arranged around a central park, there were separate facilities for men and women on either side of a set of furnaces. The changing rooms had high barrel vaults, covered in plaster and decorated with the images of weapons, gods, and nature, all in relief set into octagonal panels (and still legible after two thousand years!). The Roman baths consisted of three different rooms – a frigidarium, with cold water; a tepidarium, with lukewarm water and a caledarium, with the hottest water. The latter two received heat from the furnaces via a series of under floor channels, made visible now in the ruins. Hot gasses from the fires passed through these channels under the floor, warming the water and the air above it. It’s a clever arrangement, really, much like the in-floor heating that is becoming popular in modern architecture.
The baths also had mostly intact roofing, meaning that the more delicate internal features had remained intact (particularly on the women’s side). The floors of the baths were covered in diamond patterned mosaics, laid in grout over the larger flat stones that made up the false floor. One marble basin in particular looked like it was brand new – the partially intact plaster ceiling still had a pattern of the stars painted on it.
The Roman equivalents of fast food restaurants were visible along the street, too. These were storefronts, usually on the corner, with a counter of garish stones and a series of small hollows where food was cooked. Fountains were usually nearby, as well, some of them repaired (with modern, non-leaded pipes) for tourists to drink from.
The amphitheater and sports grounds were interesting as well for the usual collection of two thousand year old graffiti (that I was first introduced to at the Colosseum in Rome). Pictures of ships, puzzle games scratched into the rock, curses directed to the politicians of the day . . . some things really do not change very much from one generation to the next.
In summary, Pompeii is stunning not just because of its size, but because of the uniformity of the time period that it captures. It is incredibly rare that we get more than the smallest snapshot of a day in the life of a human being from two thousand years ago, while Pompeii may be a snapshot of a very BAD day, it remains one of the most compelling examples of an abstract history made concrete that I have ever visited.
Monday, April 16, 2012
Expenses, Day 24
Albergue Municipal Estrella: 7.00
Trip Total: 528.16
Day 25, December 19th, 2011
Expenses, Day 25
Fruit, Vegetables, Chocolate: 3.25
Café con Leche: 1.10
Dinner, Provisions: 7.14
Yesterday was a hard day for only 20 kilometers. I had been up late the night before with Jay (British pilgrim, hippie, lives in converted church, makes jewelry out of bits of meteorities, 51 years old) and Ernesto (Venezuelan, recently divorced and changed jobs, wore jeans on the camino in winter (not a good idea), 56 years old) and didn’t get enough sleep. Also, I pulled something in my left shin the day before that on the way into Puente la Reina . . . I should know better than to try 31 kilometers in the rain and slippery mud. I took a couple bad falls, any one of them could have been the one to hurt my leg . . . and so yesterday was a tough day.
Today was better. The weather was better, and so was the leg. I slept about thirteen hours straight last night, which helped my body heal a little. I think that it should be okay by tomorrow. This is proof that somebody can be dumb no matter how many kilometers they’ve walked.
I told Jay and Ernesto my story about the mountain and victory over fear, and Ernesto said something interesting. “You’ve learned something about yourself . . . you’re not afraid to die.”
Hmm. I tried that out, saying it out loud to myself while walking the next day. “I am not afraid to die.” It isn’t quite the truth; I am afraid of death, and I am in no hurry to get there. But what is true is that when it comes to something I believe in (the camino, in this case, even though I don’t know why I believe in it) I will act in the face of the fear of death. Maybe that’s the same thing.
I feel good. It feels strong and powerful to say “I am not afraid of death,” and feel some kernel of truth resonate deep in my gut.
Because the threat of death was real there for a few moments, if extremely unlikely. My survival depended on two things: my ability to keep walking, and the weather staying clear. If I had broken an ankle and it had starting raining . . . who knows when anyone else would have come along. It was so, so dumb to set out across the mountains in the middle of winter with no food! I’m not gonna do that again.
Jean-Luc has set out for Barcelona in my tracks, doing the same path that I’ve just completed in reverse. He has a tent and a kitchen; I gave him my guidebook. He is looking for peace and solitude; I think he will find the latter, at least! I hope he has better luck than I did; he is a beautiful spirit and I wish him the best. It’s too bad that I didn’t get to walk with him further.
We are definitely in Basque country now – that’s what the strange language is with all the Ks and Zs (it’s called Euskara). There is lots of “Free the Basque Country!” and “Peregrino – you are not in Spain!” graffiti. Madrid probably disagrees with that second statement.
It’s Ursula’s 70th birthday today. She’s a retired schoolteacher from Germany and speaks fluent Spanish, English, German, and is working on her Italian. This is her fourth camino – the woman can walk me into the ground. It’s all like Jay says: “Tread lightly upon the Earth.” I’ve spent the past two days walking on a hurt leg, trying to just listen to the work my feet are doing . . . not trying to control it, just listening. The more I listen, the more I “tread lightly,” and the more I find my own stride. That’s the secret, I think, not strength or fitness. Technique.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
But the ship is still afloat; we're docked now in Civitavecchia.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
When I see your face, the stones start spinning!
You appear, all studying wanders.
I lose my place.
Water turns pearly.
Fire dies down and doesn't destroy.
In your presence I don't want what I thought
I wanted, those three little hanging lamps.
Inside your face the ancient manuscripts
seem like rusty mirrors.
You breathe; new shapes appear,
and the music of a desire as widespread
as Spring begins to move
like a great wagon.
Some of us walking alongside
Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.
If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Day 23, December 17th, 2011
Mom would be so proud of me right now.
I arrived in the albergue in Puente la Reina at about 5pm after a 31km walk through rain, snow and sleet. It was like the Pyrenees were taking wet shits all over us. Patrick made it, too, I saw him as the brother was walking me over to the albergue.
Located at the confluence of the Caminos Aragones and Frances, Puente la Reina is a hub of pilgrim activity. The first two buildings I saw were private albergues. I'm in a different one, though, with nine other pilgrims. Nine! When the brother took me to the albergue (I arrived late and it was locked), I was almost totally overwhelmed by the sudden noise. The bunkroom was filled with people laughing and joking, wringing out wet clothing, making tea for each other, and bandaging themselves after conquering the Pyrenees. It smelled like wet dog. Mom would be proud because I cooked dinner for everyone.
Dinner was an interesting affair. The albergue here, run by the church, has a kitchen, and I volunteered to go searching for food. Jean Luc and Wanwoo came with me, two fellow pilgrims and new friends that I had just made in the albergue. A strange trio we made, speaking just enough English to communicate with each other and just enough Spanish to communicate with the locals.
Many stores were closed. Finally we found a artisan bakery that was open, where we purchased several large bags of pasta, a jar of tomato sauce, cheese, bread, and a big bar of almond choclate to split amongst the ten of us. The owner was very patient with our indecision and fairly terrible Spanish, even though she was about to close up – it would have been a hungry night if she hadn't!
Back in the albergue, I began cooking. There was a little bit of milk and Spanish chocolate, so I boiled the milk and made chocolate to tide everyone over while the water for the pasta boiled. Unfortunately, the electric stovetop was being a bit wonky and finally quit altogether before the water was boiling. We tried everything we could think of to get it working again, short of actually disconnecting it from the wiring of the building and reconnecting it (the substantial risk of fatal electrocution finally dissuaded me – Spain is not known for having talented electricians, and this albergue was no exception). It was beginning to look like a wet, cold day was going to be followed with a hungry night . . . finally the other pilgrims told me to go ask Jean Luc for help.
Jean Luc is a young man from France, about my age, who has been walking a considerable distance. He's been camping most of it in the wild, like Marten (the first pilgrim I met, from Essen), hence his massive pack (it has a tent and a kitchen in it, two things I've sorely missed). He's a quiet, thoughtful individual, and while I didn't know exactly what he was going to do to fix the stove (and save our dinner!) I followed the advice of the other pilgrims.
He was sitting on his bunk, facing away from me, when I entered the bedroom. It took a few tries to get his attention – I realized exactly too late that he had been practicing a form of Indian meditation known as Vipannasa and that I had just interrupted it. After a few profuse apologies (which he smiled and brushed off) I explained the situation to him. Jean Luc and I returned to the kitchen, where he took one look at the stove top and touched the power button just as we had done a hundred times.. It flashed back to life in an instant. Dinner was delicious.
I figured out later that the stove could get confused by too many quick inputs on the little touchscreen at the front, and that when it did it would lock up until the burners cooled and then reset itself. That's why it worked when Jean Luc tried it – they'd cooled sufficiently to reset. So it wasn't a miracle, exactly . . .
He and I fell to talking later. We had both journeyed through fairly remote areas to get here, and were both amazed and slightly overwhelmed by the number of pilgrims present in the albergue that night. He liked my stories of Catalunya and Aragon, and asked if he could borrow my guidebook for the Camino Catalan. I ripped out the page with the remaining distances to Santiago and gave it to him – it wasn't like I was going to need it again any time soon, after all.
Note: I never saw Jean Luc again. I found out later from the others that he took my guidebook and set out towards Barcelona, backwards along the path I had just taken. The Camino Frances was too crowded for him. I hope he made it.
So many stories! So many soulful individuals.
Tomorrow, I tread softly. Today is a day of harmony with the trail. I have been fighting impatience so much since my victory over San Juan de la Pena. I have been gaining strength and power; time to gain wisdom.
Expenses, Day 23
Trip Total: 511.16
Monday, April 9, 2012
Trip Total: 502.66
Thank goodness that the Monreal albergue is open!
Itwas cloudy today, then rainy, then rainy and windy. This is the first day of rain in 22 days. I'm fine with rain, but rain and wind and cold are pretty unpleasant together. There was some sleet as well.
The camino is stumbling back to the Albergue with Patrick at 9pm after an enormous Menu del Peregrino, a little drunk and knowing that you have 31km to go the next day. His wife likes that he goes on camino in the winter, because the Spanish whorehouses are closed in winter. Could this get any more Canterbury tales?
Carved into the entrance to a graveyard: “Yo que fui, lo que tu eres. Tu seras, lo que yo soi.” "I was what you are. You'll be what I am."
Friday, April 6, 2012
Expenses, Day 21
Resupply (bread, OJ, chorizo): 4.40
Pensión Peregrino: 20.00
Resupply (bread, pastry): 3.30
Café con leche: 1.10
Trip Total: 475.26
Today was a beautiful day for traveling (but aren’t they all?). I spent most of the morning climbing out of the ghost town of Ruesta (pop. = us) along the ridge through logging country. I crested the ridge around 11am and descended through scrub and finally farmland to Sangüesa. I arrived around 3 or 4 in the afternoon – it was a short day of only 22.4km. 25km tomorrow and 30km to Puente la Reina the day after (note: there are two Puente la Reinas on the Camino Aragonés). I crossed the border from Aragón to Navarra as well today.
Sangüesa is bilingual, but I can’t figure out what the other language is. It looks like a Slavic language, with lots of z’s all over the place (note: I discovered later that it is Euskara, the native Basque language. More on this later).
I was fighting off a bit of impatience to be done with the camino today. If I had started from St. Jean Pied-de-Port (a common starting point for the modern pilgrim, located only a few days away in France) I would be only a week away from Santiago right now. With my victory a few days ago on the Camino Catalán, it is tempting to think that I’ve gotten what I need here and that it is time to move on . . . part of me hopes not. I hope that there is more here for me. Keep teaching, camino . . . although one more easy day might be okay before the lessons start again.
And I haven’t reached Santiago. Where I might’ve started doesn’t matter; gotta keep going.
This morning I came to the conclusion that The Empire Strikes Back has the best soundtrack ever written, and that you could listen to just the music and understand the entire plot because of how strongly each character is written into the music. Luke’s theme, Han and Leia, the addition to the Imperial March that happens when the emperor enters . . . etc.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Expenses, Day 20:
Albergue in Ruesta (Dinner, Bed, Breakfast tomorrow): 24.00
Trip Total: 445.59
Today was my first full day on the Camino Aragonés.
The albergue last night was beautiful. Arrés is a tiny fortress town built on the strategic point of a pass through the mountains to the south. The albergue is a reclaimed building that used to be in ruins – I saw before/after pictures on the wall. The walls were standing but the rest was a ruin. That seems to be typical of Rómanesque architecture; floors and roofs are of fragile wood, while the walls are of thick, thick stone.
It is three stories inside. The back entrance is on the ground floor, along with the bathrooms. This floor is smaller than the others, as the raw stone of the mountainside protrudes into the space (creating an odd situation where the toilet and shower cubicles has windows looking onto raw stone). The second floor has two bedrooms, while the third has a kitchen and a living room (the main entrance is on the balcony between the second and third floors). There's also an attic above the stairwell with four more mattresses – 20 beds in all, maybe.
The other pilgrim is a Spaniard, 51 years old, and not actually grumpy. There's a third pilgrim, as well, a French doctor who is 56 and stayed last night in the hotel attached to the bar. We made an odd trio, drinking calimoxto and tossing bits of Spanish, French, and English back and forth.
On the trail yesterday before Arrés I came upon a strange sight. I was following the trail through some woods when I came upon a stony meadow. The stones had been moved off the path, though, and there were a couple small cairns on either side of the path. I climbed a small rise to see that the entire field of stones had been stacked by pilgrims into small cairns. There were hundreds – thousands of them! Some had messages carved or painted on them; others had small gifts or charms wound around the rocks. I left a small pile of my own, made from a few loose rocks nearby.
Since then I've been seeing little cairns with some regularity. There was an old ruined hermitage that I passed in a field; seeing what I though was graffiti, I took a look inside. It wasn't graffiti – it was one of thousands of pilgrim names scratched into the remaining plaster. On the alter was a pile of stones in the shape of a heart. In other places were a small fire pit and a cross made of loose rock, as well as a tin labeled (ironically, I think) “donativo” (or donations, the typical sign in albergues above the box where one pays). I'd like to think that the monks who used to live here would appreciate that the pilgrims are using the ruins for shelter.
Speaking of rocks, I spent much of today walking among a very strange stone. It is gray, very soft, and erodes in small flakes. You can scrape pieces off of boulders just by running your hand along the face – a shower of chips about an inch long and an eighth of an inch thick will follow your fingers. It is very soft to walk on and eventually becomes sticky gray mud.
No plants grow on this rock, but I believe that it is because the roots of any sprouting seeds dislodge the very rock that they try to latch on to, rather than because of any toxicity of the rock itself (although I could be wrong). The strange erosion properties mean that the soft gray rock forms hillsides of sensuous curves, like Picasso painting a voluptuous woman.
Taking a break, I climbed one of the little hills. The way the stone breaks into such small chunks means that it tends to recreate larger landscapes in miniature. I felt like a giant steeping over valleys and rivers . . .
Sometimes a vein of more normal red rock runs through the gray stone. As it erodes, it leaves red “boulders” that fall down the small valleys. It's a whole geological cycle in miniature.
As I passed Artieda, I noticed a change in the landscape. The path followed a narrow green tunnel, sunk beneath the fallow fields and between stone walls that were being torn apart by the invading undergrowth. It was beautiful, but very empty. Not creepy, like before, as this land felt like it was supposed to be empty, but I didn't know why.
Coming in to Ruesta, I saw the remains of an old tower. Nothing special about that – there are lots of ruined towers in Spain, after all. There were other ruined buildings around it, too, and the road had been in an unusual state of disrepair for quite some time (when I could find it all, that is). There were quite a lot of ruined buildings, and as the cracked asphalt led me into town I realized that some of them were much more recent than the keep. Maybe even 20th century . . . what had happened here?
There were a few buildings that showed signs of very recent renovation. These belong to the albergue, a massive affair with 100 beds. It is the only inhabited building in town.
After asking around a little bit, I found out that this whole area was flooded with the construction of a dam. After years, they decommissioned it, and people returned to the area only to find that soil was no longer good for farming. This is why Ruesta is a ghost town, with only an albergue remaining. It is weird to think that this was all underwater at one point.
I love these Spanish soap operas. No one does them as well as the Spanish. They're all set in different time periods – the one on right now is set during the wars with Napolean. Fantastic.
There is a great picture here of people hiking in to the ruins of the city after the dam has been decommissioned. It's like they've found a ruined city on a forgotten planet, or the lost island of Atlantis.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
The city was walled for much of its history, and the old sections of town sit behind the remnants of those walls. A series of pentagonal batteries protect the various approaches to the city, including one that is located at the end of a very long causeway out in the shallows. Columbus sailed from here twice for the New World, on his second and fourth voyages, and it is likely that these walls were the last he saw of the mainland before heading South to the Canary islands. Cadiz was also one of the few Spanish cities to hold out against the French conquest during the Napoleonic wars, and has been the birthplace of several popular revolts (one of them to restore the constitution of 1812).
The old city is a maze of narrow streets, beautiful architecture, and carefully-sculpted parks. The parks are laid out in geometric patterns -- the Moorish influence can be seen in the blue tile and diamond patterning, while the Christian influence can be seen right alongside with the images of the Virgin Mary and widespread use of crosses on just about everything. The huge trees lining these parks are said to have been brought from the New World and planted here -- they are massive, with branches like the limbs of dinosaurs stretching out overhead. Cadiz is one of those social tidewaters, a place where the world's great cultures have each ebbed and flowed, leaving a complicated, layered remnant behind.
It is good to be back in continental Spain once again. I had not realized how much Spain feels like home until I had a warm chocolate Napolitana in my hands (a kind of fluffy pastry with chocolate in the center, not unlike the French pan au chocolat). A long walk along the ocean was just the thing I needed to settle my head today. I'm looking forward to Malaga tomorrow, and then Barcelona most of all.
It is a holy week this week (the build up to Easter), and so the square in front of the cathedral was being prepared for a procession. I saw marching bands warming up and lots of people in strange pointy hats, but due to a rehearsal I had to get back to the ship before they got started. The route was like a parade route, with boxes, television cameras, and barricades everywhere -- to get inside the cathedral was impossible. Many businesses were closed.
The thieves, though, are always working. I learned about a new scam today -- the hard way, of course, as this is how one usually learns about scams -- but it was a cheap enough lesson and provided me with some entertainment as well. On my way back to the ship, a deaf man burst from a side alley and confronted me with a petition to open a center for the deaf. I tried to explain that I wasn't from the area, but as he was deaf he couldn't understand what I was saying . . . I signed the petition and donated a Euro. About ten seconds after he left I realized that the petition had been in English . . . oops. It isn't particularly likely that a petition to open a center for the deaf in Spain is going to be written in English, after all.
The man was still in sight -- I wasn't about to confront him over a single Euro, but I did follow just to see what the deal was. He met again with his partner, who had a big stack of forms, and dropped off the money. I watched them work; it was a fairly professional operation. The second guy kept the money and watched for police, while the front man worked the tourists for cash. A quick whistle and they'd pack up shop; I had to move fast to keep up with them. The real tip off was when I saw the "deaf" man I'd given the donation to talking on his cell phone . . . the half hour of entertainment I got by following and watching them work was definitely worth the Euro I lost. Thieves have got to eat too, after all . . .
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
On land, the city of Casablanca is most famous for the classic 1943 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman . On the ship, it is notorious for being totally unlike the movie (which, in retrospect, should not be too surprising as the movie was filmed on a lot in Los Angeles). Many of the crew who have been here before decided to give it a pass, and the guest newsletter contains a wonderful little warning that I've paraphrased here: “Casablanca is not yet up to the first class tourist standards of Europe with regards to buses and drivers. Occasionally tours may encounter delays and unplanned events. Try to accept these events as cultural experiences.” Despite (or perhaps because of) this obnoxious warning I headed out into the town after crew drill -- aren't unplanned events and cultural experiences the point of traveling?
Oh, and "town" isn't quite the right word. Casablanca is a city of four million people; its history dates back eight thousand years to the Phoenicians, but the modern city was founded as a French settlement at the beginning of the 20th century (Portugal had largely abandoned it two hundred years before). The city speaks a mixture of French and Arabic, although American dollars are widely accepted along with Dirham (the local currency) and Euros. Luckily I have a Quebecois friend on board the ship!
A group of us negotiated with a taxi driver to take a little tour around the city. After deciding on a price we walked out to the car, a battered old diesel BMW with strange elongated doors. It had the body of a sedan but the seating of a van, with one manual window and one automatic. The driver had a cassette mix tape playing that he would rewind every few minutes – I don't know if the Gnawa music and wailing double-reeded horns were for the benefit of us, the tourists, or if he was actually enjoying it. Sylvain, my Quebecois friend, sat in front and chatted happily away with the driver in French while we watched the city go by.
It was my first time on the mainland of the African continent – the Canaries and Madeira are technically part of Africa, but I don't think they really count. It was also my first time in a Muslim country. The dress was half Western and half North African – long, dark colored robes that are good for cutting the heat. Long sleeves and pants are the norm – very few people have exposed forearms or calves. It's hot already, but the sea breeze keeps things cool enough. Inland it's already over forty degrees centigrade.
Our first stop was the Hassan II mosque. This is a relatively new mosque, completed in 1980 for a cost of half a billion dollars. It has the highest minaret in the world, can hold 20,000 people in the prayer hall, and at night shoots a laser 30 kilometers towards Mecca. In the thirty years since it was built it has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Casablanca. Muslim architecture is fascinating because it contains no representative imagery – everything is abstract and symbolic (contrast this with the Christian architecture in nearby Spain, where everything is adorned with images of saints and martyrs). The ceilings, floors, walls, and most other things are covered in complicated patterns either carved into the stone or created through delicate inlaid mosaics. The more delicate layers of patterning are not visible until you've looked at a certain surface for a period of time . . . they disappear into the larger shapes, which in turn disappear into the larger shapes of the building itself. The end result is almost on the level of an optical illusion, where different layers of complication can lie invisible, nested inside one another.
I didn't go inside, as I wanted to respect their place of worship, but I did peek inside the massive gateway to the hall. People were walking past me (men through one door, women through another), slipping out of their shoes at the gateway. It was a beautiful setting – right on the ocean, with the constant sound of the pounding waves and the bright African sun overhead. There was a sign advertising tours (I think – it was in French, after all . . .) but we wanted to see some other parts of the city.
The driver took us along the seaside next. This was definitely the upscale, touristy section of town, full of bars catering to Europeans and cheap beach side resorts. There was even a McDonald's; I don't know if they had McCousCous, but I sort of hope not. Bogart and Bergman would not have looked nearly as good sitting at a plastic booth behind the golden arches.
Our driver dropped us off in another part of town, near a market, so that we could explore. Some of my companions got trapped in a carpet store (the salesperson actually said, “We are not pushy salespeople here!” as he was being a pushy salesperson . . . I was suspect that our driver was getting a cut). As we waited outside the carpet shop, the only girl in our group was subjected to a series of awkward English compliments . . . as a blond young woman, she sticks out in Morocco, and so the men say things that don't really translate right. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like barbie?” is not really a compliment back home, after all. The cab driver had been calling her “belle gazelle” in French which was sort of endearing, but all in all it seems that Morocco is a tough place for Western women.
I began to sense that my companions were feeling a little out of place . . . those of us who had escaped from the rug shop decided to wait by the car until the others emerged (I had hoped they'd come out with big rolls of fabric, but no luck). I, on the other hand, elected to explore a bit, since I don't know when I'll be in Morocco again. The main market was a few streets over, and here I began to feel a lot more comfortable. It was not at all a tourist market – this was a street market in the truest sense of the word, as cars and motorcycles were constantly pushing their way through crowds of people and between vendors' carts. I saw all sorts of things for sale – mostly food, but also questionable electronics, stacks of tires, and books in a wide variety of languages. The degree to which everything was mixed together was fascinating – you could find yourself swept along by a group of children just out of school, stepping over the legs of somewhere working on a car in the middle of the street, while three feet to your left there are suited businessmen taking tea at a small cafe. My favorite sight was the old lady selling passports – a rainbow of booklets in muted hues, presumably liberated from unfortunate tourists. I almost wanted to browse just out of curiosity.
I was surrounded by all sorts of smells. The fumes from a passing moped, a brief blast of roast chicken, and the bitter whiff of hashish wafting out of some darkened corner were all recurring themes. Stores and restaurants that were contained in buildings seem to spill out into the street during the day, only to close at night like a row of blooming flowers. One bakery even brought their ovens onto the sidewalk, a strategy that must be life saving when summer really gets going.
We eventually made our way back to the ship and the numbing safety of our tan plastic cubicles. I am entirely alone in my opinion here on board, but I liked Casablanca. People dislike it because it isn't like the movie, but I disagree. It's an industrial, hot, grimy, jumbled together kind of place with a weird mixture of languages, cultures and customs -- and I like it all the better for those things. If we can let go of our compulsion to judge a place by our own standards, we can begin to see it for what it is. The fifth rule of the camino, “Sometimes there are mountains,” and its corollary, “Sometimes there aren't,” definitely applies here. The world is just the world, whether there are mountains or not, and the Buddha is as surely in the acrid stench of a moped in Casablanca as it is in a Shinto temple on Mount Fuji. People forget that Bogart and Bergman are acting out a story set in a hot, grimy, stench-ridden, smoke-filled gambling hall, located in a city rife with crime and occupied by a fascist state. The beauty of the story is not in the locale; the beauty is in the blossoming of love in a place that is so ugly and worn. In this respect, I think Casablanca is exactly like it was in the movie.