27 April 2011

I Sailed to Africa and Got Bit by a Monkey

A scene from the Semana Santa procession in Málaga

Semana Santa is one of the most important times of year in Spain. It is a time of celebration, family, parades, and, of course, no school. With last week being Semana Santa, I decided to take a bit of a trip and bring along some of my friends. Three of my best friends in the world came to visit me from America and we traveled around Madrid, the south of Spain, and the northern coast of Morocco before my friends left to return home.

It was quite a blessing to have my friends come to visit me. These are guys with whom I spent almost every waking minute of two years fighting in the trenches on the south side of Chicago. We lesson planned together, laughed together, cried together, and tried to have a little fun in the process. When I decided to move to Madrid to pursue my dream of living abroad, I was forced to leave these friends behind, and keeping up with each other has been difficult. By some miracle (supplemented by the fact that they are all teachers at the same school), our spring breaks lined up, and they bought tickets to come visit Spain (and me) for the week. We spent our week traveling around Spain and visiting Morocco. Over the course of ten days, we spent time in Madrid, Málaga, Algeciras, Gibraltar, Tarifa, Tangier, and Segovia. Of course, Gibraltar and Tangier are in England and Morocco, respectively, but most of our travels took place on the Iberian Peninsula.

In Málaga, we watched the Semana Santa procession that wound through the streets for over seven hours. Of course, we did not watch the whole thing, but during our extensive walking tour of the city and its restaurant scene, we ran into the procession several times, often to our disappointment. From Málaga, we took a three hour bus to the border of Gibraltar and Spain, got off the bus, and walked across the border. After going through passport controls and getting our much coveted stamp, we made our way to the Rock of Gibraltar and began climbing our way to the top. The Rock is an absolutely breathtaking site. Once considered to be the end of the known world, this massive natural landmass looms over the Bay of Gibraltar and reminds everyone below of the power of nature and of the story that lurks in our history. The Rock has been a highly contested piece of land due to its naturally strategic location and has been fought over for centuries by Spain, England, Morocco, and various other contenders.

The Rock of Gibraltar
Today, owned by the British, the Rock is a visitable natural wildlife reserve that is home to caves, WWII tunnels and artillery, a Moorish castle, and wild monkeys. Our first move was to hike up the side of the rock to where the monkeys live and observe them for a while. They like to climb on people and jump on cars, so one must be careful and aware while around the monkeys normal living area. They are free to roam as they please, and are the only wild monkey population in all of Europe. Occasionally, they will get into people's backpacks and steal their things or even bite tourists. One of them actually bit me on the shoulder, but no worries, they are very closely monitored and do not harbor diseases. Aside from the monkeys and their antics, we were able to see some pretty amazing sites while on The Rock. We walked through the halls of a castle that is over 700 years old, explored caves that are said to be millions of years in the making, and went through part of a 12km system of defense tunnels that was built during WWII. The Rock of Gibraltar was a seriously impressive place to visit, and I am glad that I was able to make it there during my time here.

After Gibraltar, we took a short bus to Algeciras, a Spanish port town about 30 minutes west of Gibraltar. With only one night in Algeciras, we did a short walking tour and made it to a restaurant to eat. After eating, we ran into another Semana Santa procession and watched for a while, interested to see how it might be different than the one in Málaga. It wasn't. The next day, we took a bus to Tarifa and boarded a boat to take us over to Africa. Once on the boat, I got a little nervous about my sea legs. I have been on boats countless times, but not in recent years. When we started sloshing around, I felt a little queasy, but that quickly subsided and I was able to enjoy the ride. It was a pretty surreal experience to ride on a boat from one continent to another. The Strait of Gibraltar is very small, and on a clear day, you can stand on the shore of one continent and see the shore of the other. Taking the boat across and being in the center of the water, able to look at both continents from an objective point of view, was a very unique experience.

Once we landed in Tangier, Morocco, we made our way to our hostel, doing our best to avoid all of the hustlers that were attempting to "help" us in the process. With little trouble, we found our place, and what a gem it was. This hostel, the Dar Jameel, is quite possibly the nicest place that I have ever stayed. It is absolutely gorgeous with a Moorish-style interior and unbelievable tiling and artwork. There is a rooftop terrace, a rooftop gazebo, multiple sitting rooms, and an incredibly nice and helpful staff. AND, each morning, we had a mind blowingly delicious home cooked breakfast that is included in the price of the hostel.

The food in Tangier was amazing. Lamb, seafood, couscous, and mixed salads among other things. With the exchange rate at 10 to 1, we were able to eat like kings and racked up seemingly astronomical bills, having only to pay a small amount when considered in euros or US dollars. Each day that we were there, we walked around the city exploring the streets and the shops. We toured the American Legation, the first piece of foreign land ever owned by the US (acquired during Washington's presidency). After the Legation, we headed to the former Sultan's palace and admired artifacts and artwork that tell the story and chronological history of Tangier and Morocco. At night, after spending the days out and about in Tangier, we would sit at the top of the roof, looking out over the city and recapping the day. Tangier is interesting because of the clash of cultures that exist there without actually clashing. There are western churches, eastern churches, and mosques that dot the city. Many women wear head scarves, some even wearing full body cover, while others wear jeans and a t-shirt. There is a city wide prayer call five times a day from the speakers of surrounding mosques, but even during the call there are those who do not acknowledge its presence. Tangier seems to be a very beautiful mix of generally thought to be arch enemy cultures. Each person follows his or her own path, respecting others through the process. Of course, Tangier is not a perfect society, as no society is perfect, but its ability to allow the peaceful mix of normally violently opposed cultures is something to be admired.

A Barbary Macaque that lives on The Rock
After our few days in Morocco, we returned to Madrid and spent another night here before heading to Segovia for a Saturday excursion. I had already seen the town of Segovia, but my friends had not. So, we took a train up to the village and explored a bit. Aware of the fact that this served as our last day together, my friends and I cherished the time that we had to talk, joke, and appreciate each other's company before having to return to reality the next day.

Semana Santa was a great week, a week full of friends and new and exciting things. The above description of the week does it no justice, but I do hope that you get some sort of idea of what we experienced. If I were to type out everything that we saw and did, I would be typing for hours and you and I would both end up quite bored. Just suffice it to say that it was one of the greatest weeks of my life, a true adventure shared with real friends in a once in a lifetime kind of place. Perhaps one day I will muster up the patience to sit down and type out the entire euphoric ordeal, but for now, this excerpt from the annals of my brain will have to do.

Click here to see my pictures from Málaga.

Click here to see my pictures of Gibraltar.

Click here to see my pictures of Tangier.

03 April 2011

What I am doing in Spain...

A recent article in the New York Times explains the purpose and importance of what I am doing in Spain. No it does not mention me specifically, but it gives an overview of what is happening with the education system in Spain when it comes to foreign languages, especially English. The program that it mentions is spreading across the country and becoming a priority in Madrid is the program of which I am a part. Check it out...

In Troubled Spain, Boom Times for Foreign Languages