Monday, March 26, 2012

3 Countries, 2 Continents, 1 Post


In the past month, I have had the privilege of visiting Morocco, Dublin, and London. Now, these have been the sorts of trips that change a person—really give her some perspective and prompt her to ask the important questions: Where does my life come into play in a world so large? How might I have turned out differently had I not been raised in the comfy suburbs of the US of A? Does this headscarf make me look fat? On and on. A sharp increase in cultural awareness, though, is not something that I feel I can adequately describe within the confines of a blog. For that, you’ll have to be on the lookout for my memoirs. No, this post will try to hit on the finer points of each trip, and there are many.

 Many weeks ago, we began our venture to Morocco, stopping first in Gibraltar. I feel I can sum up the place in three words: geezers, monkeys, wind. As it turns out, Gibraltar has become a popular retirement spot for Brits – our tour guide even comparing it to the Florida coast at one point. After taking a driving tour, we walked around and took some photos across the Strait, almost blowing over to the coast of Africa in the meantime (paralleling Florida again, circa Hurricane Irene). Then, it was up to the top of the rock for Ape’s Den and St. Michael’s cave. I made the executive decision to watch the monkeys and abstain from any physical interactions. I admit it was a fun thing to observe, but I doubt Churchill himself could’ve pushed for Gibraltar’s sustaining the monkey population in good faith had he known of the crippling smell that would later plague tourists’ noses. Atrocious. And it didn’t help that every two seconds you found yourself downwind.

Anyway, after Gibraltar we ferried over to Morocco, where we met up with our tour guide, Jamal, and checked into our hotel. The next day, we started off in the city of Chefchaouen, which I would highly recommend Google-imaging. It’s a hill city with its walls, doorways, and houses painted different shades of blue to repel insects. It is here that I had my first try at haggling –said by Jamal to be Morocco’s national sport—and my first encounter with Surfer Girl. We called her Surfer Girl because she took a series of fake surfing photos on this structure resembling a wave before we learned her name:

Hang ten, you raving loon.

Upon telling my friends and family about my upcoming trip to Morocco, there was one common concern that was voiced: my safety. Now, you may ask – Were you scared when you, David, Marc, and Lukas got lost? No. Were you scared when that man tried to sell you hashish and then said that women don’t have speaking privileges? No. Were you scared when you and Surfer Girl were the last two people to leave the bathroom and she proceeded to belt out/awkwardly belly dance to the Busta Rhymes hit “Arab Money” down several streets until you could find the group after having just been advised to “lay low?” Why, yes. Yes, I was. And as we were followed by some males down the road, I found myself cursing the overall Moroccan fluency in English. She didn’t seem to notice, though, and instead spoke of how she could tell from the jewelry stores that “these fun Arabs” really seemed to share in her love “for all things glitz and glam.”

Bless her heart.

From Chefchaouen, we went to Tetuan for an afternoon of shopping and general cultural learning experiences. The night ended with a dinner that included live dancing and a man who had a candle balancing act. Wicked fun, if you will. The next day, we visited the Caves of Hercules, rode camels, and toured Ceuta before heading home to Sevilla. All in all, great success.

This past weekend, I went with 7 others to Dublin and London for St. Patrick’s Day festivities. We traveled with a large tour company that made all of our arrangements for us, which was nice. Instead of piling into buses full of other green-clad college kids, though, we quickly learned that our fellow Paddywagoners were primarily 30-somethings looking for a weekend to forget about life in the cubicle. Along with being a fun social change of pace, other benefits of this included acquiring many new inside connections with the gel pen industry. Our first night in Dublin consisted of a brief driving tour followed by visits to various pubs—the calm before the storm, we might call it. St. Patrick’s Day itself was exceedingly fun, yet very different than what I’d anticipated. The parade was science themed and featured several American marching bands, among them being those from the University of Missouri and a 3A high school from Fayetteville, Georgia (shout out here to any members of the Fayetteville High brass section who managed to find my blog even though I told you my name was Sinéad O’Connor). The rest of the day was spent making Irish friends and watching Rugby.

Sunday, we drove through a little bit of the Wicklow Mountains where both PS I Love You and Braveheart were filmed and also stopped briefly to see the monastic sites in Glendalough. Then, we went on a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, returned to London, and ran around the city at lightening speeds in attempts to see as many famous sites as possible before the flight back to Spain. The trip was exhausting but certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. London in particular seemed like a city that I would be very interested in visiting again. If anyone wants to join forces in devising a plan to somehow lower the value of the pound by about 80 US cents in the coming weeks, I think I still have a free weekend in May.

Hasta luego,

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Portugal Et Cetera


I can’t help but notice that it’s been a few days since my last post. My apologies to anyone who thought I might’ve gotten lost, eaten, or worse, expelled (shout out here to my 21 year old friend, Sarah Bumgarner). I’m fully prepared to now suffer the consequences and try to condense my last few weeks of life into one blog. Here we go.

Several weekends ago, I went with a group consisting of myself and seven others to Lisbon, Portugal. To date, it’s one of the most fun trips I have ever taken. There was a period of time, though, that it didn’t look like I’d make it. Due to my tendency to forget things like money, cameras, and passports when attempting to travel, I was privileged enough to try out the Sevici Bike Company mode of transport prior to departure—thanks to my friend Marc, who lent me his card. I hadn’t yet experienced the heavy, oversized bike rental system, but it proved to be a lovely enterprise and I’m still going back and forth on whether or not I want to purchase a membership for myself. The only downside is that I found hurried rides to be less than ideal for anyone planning to ever be on the quarterback end of childbearing, so to speak. Anyway, all eight of us eventually made it onto the bus, which was already packed with people and required us to sit with random strangers. I, myself, sat with an eighty-some Portuguese woman who spoke little to no English, but by the end, she wished me a bon voyage and told me I was very nice and sweet. Like most of my friends, she was clearly a lousy judge of character. We walked up to our hostel just in time to see the sun rising over the Tagus River, and the staff was nice enough to let us check in early and have a free continental breakfast. The absolute rock star-status of this hostel would become a theme throughout the trip, and I’m quite proud to say we booked it at my suggestion. The first day, we walked around and hit most of what our guidebooks said were the must-see spots, particularly around Belém. We went to a small restaurant for dinner, where I ordered fried scallop. I include this to warn future travelers that “scallop” may also refer to a certain way to prepare fried pork. Rats! That night, David and I were the only ones foolish enough to muster the strength to check out the nightlife after going nonstop since 6:00 in the morning. We opted not to stay out for too long, but it was still fun to see.

The next day, we went on another free walking tour provided by the hostel, which ended at a huge flea market. It was a bit overwhelming — basically hundreds of people selling their lives and/or junk collections on the ground. I briefly thought about sending a small number of $5 full-sized carousel horses to my roommates just for shock value but figured the shipping would be outrageous. We went for river-front lunch after the market, and I was finally able to treat myself to some seafood (which my reading had told me was a must-try). My life savings and a sea bass later, our group split up and Rebecca, David, Marc, and I began a 4 mile uphill hike to the top of the park overlooking the city. The view was incredible and certainly one of the highlights of the trip. After returning to the hostel, we had a dinner prepared by the owner’s mother and then did a pub crawl, which was also organized by the hostel (I’m telling you, this hostel was legit). We started out at a bar with a reggae band whose set included a mix of Bob Marley, Kings of Leon, Eagle-Eye Cherry, and “Valerie.” Not quite the authentic Portuguese experience I had anticipated, but fun nonetheless. Next was a salsa bar, and the night concluded with two different clubs that featured some wild laser shows. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and at one point I found my roommate on stage requesting the quality sounds of Skrillex.

Which, speaking of— I heard that the guy received Grammy nominations? Seriously?

The next morning, we packed up and left. The following week was pretty anticlimactic in comparison. However, there was one semi-amusing afternoon in Spanish Conversation. Our homework was to write down a problem to send off to a hypothetical love doctor. The day of, I was pretty bored on the 20 minute metro ride and decided to add onto mine, thinking that we were just getting completion credit. In fact, we were not supposed to write our names down on our love problems and instead had our papers traded with those of our classmates, who then read their respective problem aloud and offered their own advice. Realizing the error of my ways, I scribbled out my name as best I could in a last-ditch effort to conceal my identity and was then forced to listen as the poor girl on row 2, whose name escapes me, struggled to read about a woman who eloped with a man her parents didn’t approve of, fell asleep on the train ride out of the country, woke up in a remote area of the world, and was refused the information of her whereabouts by her new husband—that is, the husband who she just found out is a polygamist also married to the train conductor, a gorgeous ex-Soviet spy. In other news, I am still struggling to make friends.

Morocco is coming up in a few days, although I admit that lately I’ve just been saying I’m going to Africa for the weekend on the off chance that someone will assume I have philanthropic motivations. School is really starting to pick up, too. I have 50 minutes worth of presentations to give in the coming weeks, and my third paper is due Thursday. It’s like they expect me to learn at a time like this.

This has been a very long post, and I have learned my lesson. Updates coming soon to a blog near you, assuming I live to tell about the monkeys.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Travel Plans and School

Hola a todos,

I hope that this write finds all of you well. At the very least, I hope that it finds you better than I find myself, as I sit in my bed and binge drink orange juice in attempts to bolster my immune system during— what I’ve decided to call— the cold war. The plan is to leave tomorrow (my half birthday, no less) around midnight and travel by bus to Lisbon, Portugal for the weekend. We will sleep for the duration of the ride and wake up in sunny Lisbon, returning Sunday night just in time for a late night Super Bowl screening and party. Should be a good time, assuming that I can shake off the congestion.  Here’s what’s been happening as of late:

Along with Portugal, I’ve booked a few other trips. In a couple of weekends, we’ll be going to Carnival in Cádiz with a big group for Alicia’s birthday. It’s just for one night, but I’ll be taking another trip there later on in the semester with school. It is my understanding that everyone dresses up in costume for Carnival. If anyone has any suggestions, please send them my way, as I realized that I won’t be able to dress up as anything that’s a play on words…erg. Two weeks later, we’re taking a weekend excursion to Morocco through a travel group that plans trips for international students. I’m pretty excited for that, too, and the itinerary looks neat. Rebecca talked me into spending an extra 20 euro, which includes a tour of Gibraltar and ends with time to play with monkeys in caves. Everyone seems really enthusiastic about this. The brochure even includes a picture of a girl with a large monkey on her head, but I admit I’m a little skeptical. In the photograph, she’s smiling while the monkey holds onto her face and shoulders, but I can’t help but think that she’s fighting a voice deep down inside that’s urging her to consider, “Are these not the same hands that likely threw feces moments ago?” I don’t know. I’m probably just going to take pictures of Rebecca and laugh about the irony of her middle name, “Jane.”

This has been our second week of classes, and school has been really interesting so far. I think there are roughly 300 students in the International Program, which well exceeded my expectations. I’m taking 5 classes: 3 Histories, 1 Art, and 1 Spanish Conversation; however, I find that the people are much more entertaining to observe and talk about. It became clear almost immediately that many of my classmates are viewing this as a time to reinvent themselves socially, which extends to life inside the classroom. I never realized how much cohesion exists at PC –exceptions, yes—but generally speaking, in any given class there is a shared basic sense of humor, expectation of manners, understanding of the professor-student dynamic, etc. Here, though, this hasn’t quite been the case, and I have broken down the average student-traveler into 4 main categories:

1) Normal – This student is hard to come by, something like the white rhino of campus. He or she has probably found other normal students to associate with during class time but is also stuck having to hang out with the 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s who came from the same university.

2) The Steamroller – This is nearly always a female who feels the compulsive need to prove her intelligence and charm while also meeting every student sitting within a four-chair radius. Your efforts to end a conversation or Q&A with her would be thwarted the same as if you were to try to stop Niagara Falls with a tennis racket.

3) The Bro – You have yet to hear this individual talk about anything other than alcohol, Spanish women, or alcoholic Spanish women. He makes it a point to announce his reasons for eating a mint or using Visine even though it is noon, and he has worn his Mountain Weekend tshirt at least twice.

4) The Unicorn – You were unaware that people like this were alive. You are captivated when this person speaks and often find yourself wondering, “Why?” This category is a hard concept to grasp, so I took the liberty of jotting down what I call a Unicornistic Exchange in my Spanish Conversation class today so that it may be conveyed a little easier:

Girl 1 –“¿Como se dice, ‘Her hips don’t lie’ en español?” {stifled giggles}
Girl 2 – {snort}
“Oh my gosh, Heather, you did NOT just ask that!” 
Professor“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. How do you say what?”
Girls 1 & 2 – {shaking with both hidden knowledge and a case of the sillies}
“Her hips….her hips….don’t….BAHAHAHA

:  - ___ -


If these descriptions sound somewhat familiar, it is because the International Program is almost entirely American (much to the dismay of my roommate). I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, though. I absolutely love my classes here, and I’m still having a great time. In looking at my calendar, I can tell that this semester is going to fly by. It seems like I’ve got something planned for just about every weekend, and I can’t wait to kick the whole thing off with Portugal tomorrow. I hope that as you sip on your Airborne or Emergen-C you’ll think of me, as I have not yet been able to find a Spanish equivalent.

Until next time,

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Arrival and Initial Impressions

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been pretty worthless at the whole blog thing so far. Upon leaving the states I had great visions of writing during my hours of free time, a select few wisely-chosen excerpts making their way from my detailed journal—probably aged brown leather with pages singed long ago by an open flame—into my blog for everyone to gawk at or, more accurately, not read. In actuality, I have spent the majority of my free time sitting outside of touristy pubs with friends new and old, and I feel my English slipping with each day that I try to master a different language. However, I will try to recount my travels up to this point with what few words I have left.

I flew out of the Columbia airport 2 weeks ago after saying goodbye to the family and a few loyal friends (big shout out here to William Jeter, James England, Meredith Johnson, Perrin Tribble, and their driver, Skylar Jones). It was a very emotional time, and I didn’t get 10 meters away from them before tragedy first struck. My brand new bottle of anti-frizz cream was not within the permissible liquid limit for the aircraft. I ask if I can dump half of it out so that it is within the limit. He says no. I feel like I will never be happy again.

Things are going smoothly even though it’s my first time flying alone. I faced only a minor setback on my flight from Atlanta to Madrid, discovering that the man to my right has muscle spasms when he sleeps, which caused him to sharply elbow me in the ribs several times before touch down. After the 3rd time – which woke me up from my very important jet-lag-prevention sleep— I briefly thought about pressing charges, but realized I was drawing a blank on the Spanish for “affidavit.”

I arrived in Madrid and eventually figured out that I needed to take a bus to a different terminal for my flight to Sevilla. Having to navigate the terminal and find the right bus was the first time that I really felt the severity of the language barrier, and it appeared that freak-out mode was on its way. I hopped on a bus with all of my luggage, praying that it was the right one, and as we drove across town –no doubt on the way to a sweat shop or slaughterhouse— I heard the faint whisper of “We Found Love” coming through the bus speakers. It was at this moment that I knew things would be okay, and I thanked God for all things that, like this Barbadian angel crooning on the radio, are universal. The cuteness of baby animals, McDonald’s, and the hand signal for choke, for example.   

At the Madrid airport, I ran into both Rebecca and David, the other two PC students studying at UPO. We made plans to meet in the city the following afternoon, and David and I ended up having the same flight to Sevilla. He and I parted ways outside of the Sevilla airport, and I took a cab to my apartment where I was buzzed in by my host mom, Guillermina. I quickly learned that she spoke zero English. I asked her to speak slowly –and sometimes still do— but the woman talks as if she’s going to die in the next minute and is trying to get out all of her final thoughts. It’s nearly impossible. She’s lovely, though, and my Australian roommate and I have given her the tender name of “Gwilly” to use behind her back. My roommate’s name is Alicia and she doesn’t speak any Spanish (hence the accidental reading of Guillermina as ‘Gwillermina’ instead of Gee Yair ‘Mee Nah). We get along great so far. Yesterday, she was talking about playing in a touch football (very similar to rugby) tournament and said it was called a “touch carnival.” I thought this was pretty hysterical and have found myself wondering what exactly a “touch carnival” would look like in the states. The image of Neverland Ranch comes pretty close.Too soon?

I’m finished with my intensive language class and think I’m going to try to audit Intermediate Spanish II this semester, which is taught by the same woman who instructed my intensive course. She’s very fun and energetic. Thursday, we did an exercise where we had index cards with different activities written on them, and you were supposed to ask someone in the class when it was that they last did that particular activity. My word was enamorarse, which means to fall in love. Awkward, right? I decided I would ask our professor the question, seeing as how she is married. Wrong choice. She proceeded to answer saying that she’s been married for 18 years but that the last time she fell in love was with one of her students 3 years ago, and that the people of my class were now the only people on this Earth to know about it. Um….AWKWARD?!  #wheninspain #doitellthehusband? #cantgetoverit

Anyways, I will try and get better about blogging. In short, life is good, I love it here, I miss everyone, and I’m spending money like it’s my job. *Sigh*