Sunday, June 30, 2013

Day 12: Algeciras to Tangier to Fez

So, this is the point where the careful planning for our trip (done almost exclusively by Cait) finally reached its end and we started winging it. Mostly, we wanted to leave ourselves some flexibility how long to stay at the last few stops before Morocco, especially since both were on the beach, although trip-planning fatigue also played a factor. In conjunction with this, it was about this point where we left the more beaten tourist path and took a path more often travelled by natives who have some clue what in the world they are doing. I think we saw one other large-backpack toting couple at the station in Tangier, but the rest of the day we seemed to be pretty isolated as the only ones from out of town (whether that be be Spain, France or Morocco). This might have been exciting in different circumstances, but after this much traveling, it was more just an added stress that we didn't deal with as well as we expected, but as usual, everything worked out. This post is long, but it's a day I want to remember, so, fair warning I guess.

In the end, it was a really wild day (at this point I can't believe it was all one day). It started with waking up in Algeciras, gathering our stuff and heading out the door down towards the docks. When we got near, we saw that there were a bunch of places selling ferry tickets that looked just legitimate enough for us to trust them. We did comparison shop some, taking a break to go get some simple breakfast and lunch food from a nearby market.

We picked the cheapest place with a boat leaving in an houra and a half, although there was some debate about whether to take a faster ferry out of a nearby town for $20 more, which looking back might have been a better option. We bought the cheaper tickets however, and it took some wandering to find the actual place of departure, and there was a worryingly long passport checking line, but we made it on the ship with plenty of time to spare, considering it took off an hour late. The voyage was uneventful and the kids enjoyed wandering around the fairly secure outer deck (under supervision of course) and watching Spanish Disney channel which was playing on several TV's inside the boat.

Things started to break down once we took our first steps into Morocco, however. In what has now proven to be a repeated pattern, our lack of understanding of regular practice combined with our sub-par ability to communicate using our limited Modern Standard Arabic and my slightly better Egyptian Arabic speaking skills has put us into some questionable situations that, again, always work out alright.

The bus let us off near a square in what appeared to be near the center of town with no real plans of what to do next, as well as no real idea of where to start in exploring the city. We did our first busy Moroccan street crossing, which means no crosswalk, no stoplights and cars moving fast with no indication of respect for pedestrians, which is just as terrifying as I remember it. Crossing means walking aggressively so that cars have to stop, but not so aggressively as to get flattened by a stubborn driver not interested in slowing at all.


We sat for a while under the shade of a small tree and planned what to do next. We figured finding some food was first, and we made our way around the square to what looked like the best option, a Shell gas station. In Egypt, and everywhere else I've been, gas stations are reliable if expensive places to find food, but apparently in Morocco, gas stations only stock auto supplies, which makes sense, I suppose. So we asked around and eventually made our way to a restaurant, where we ate a ton of watermelon and some distinctively non-British fish and chips, which consisted of the standard fries, along with chewy onion rings, whole breaded and fried sardines and a whole breaded and fried fish of inscrutable species and some bread and dipping sauce. We were hungry enough to eat it all however, and asking for more directions and advice in a mixture of English, French (which is the secondary language of almost everyone here, but not of us) and Arabic, we made our way to the next stop: the train station.

We ended up taking a taxi, even though it seemed that no one wanted to take us (the taxi drivers yelled at each other for a while until one conceded to take us for 30 durham, the exact equivalent of 3 euros [doing money conversion in our head here means dividing durham by 10 to get to Euros and then trying to go from Euros to dollars by estimation, but more often then not just stopping at Euros]). We probably just should have walked, because we had time before the next train to Fez (we had looked up the time online). We had an ongoing debate whether to stay in Tangier for a day or two and hang out on the beach or to head on to Fez. We ended up deciding to go on to Fez because we were a) ready to get there and be done traveling and b) the hotels in Tangier were rather expensive. Looking back on it now, I kind of wish we had stayed a few days, maybe gone to the beaches in Spain instead of Morocco, but what's done is done and it might have turned out to be a bad option had we stayed on there, as apparently the beaches on both sides of the Mediterranean in this area are rather unpleasant.

We waited in the station for a few hours after buying our tickets, got some ice cream and had some iPad time. As soon as we saw people starting to head toward the train, we followed, because Cait had read that they overbook the trains and some people don't get seats. This was certainly the case, and we were lucky to get three seats in one of the Harry Potter (and every old movie)-style cabins in the train (the only time we had that kind of arrangement) and we eventually reduced down from one seat for each of us to two seats and kids on the laps as the train got fuller and fuller at each stop and more and more people were standing forlornly outside of our cabin.


When we changed trains after a couple of hours (and a couple of breakdowns on the part of the kids), it was our turn to join in the frantic hunt for seats on a train already too full. Someone gave up their seat for Cait and Atticus, and Lulah and I wandered up and down the aisles for an hour or so, and Lulah got her first concentrated dose of Arab fawning over American babies. That, is of course, a stereotype, and plenty of Arabs seem more annoyed than pleased by the site of a smiling baby, but on the whole, Tallulah gets much more attention, kisses, cheek pinches, here in a day then she has ever gotten in Madison. Atticus also gets a fair amount of attention, but not nearly as much, but he got plenty in Egypt, so it's all fair.

The train slowly cleared at stop and I got to sit for a while until we finally made our way into Fez. Once in Fez, we were once again without real plans. The train station was really nice and had internet, so we made contact with some friends in Fez from UW who were also there studying Arabic. However, we left without establishing definite plans with them, heading out to get some food at a McDonalds Google Maps showed us (after

almost deciding to just stay at the reasonably priced hotel next to the train station, which, again looking back, would probably have been the best option [I keep adding these asides as a reminder to my future self about the lessons that we learned and to anyone else who is reading our blog in the Fez train station unsure of whether to try to make contact with their now-sleeping friends or stay the night in the nice hotel right next door]), where we planned on using internet. We made it to the McDonalds after a not to long walk, sent our friends another email and then the internet there stopped working and they didn't seem too interested in helping us figure it out. So we grabbed some food and headed out into the great unknown.

We had somewhat indicated to our friends that we would be meeting them in the square near their house where they would guide us through the old city that is the largest car-free city center in the world and thus inaccessible to taxis. However, we weren't sure if they had a) gotten those emails, as it was late and b) if it was really clear that we were going to meet them there. So we decided to head to the square and hope for the best, looking for a pay phone to call them along the way. We thought we had a good idea of how to walk to the square (we didn't and it would have been a really long walk if we did). After going for a little ways, we decided to try to hail a taxi, and after a few occupied ones passed us, a guy driving a motorcycle/very small truck combo, which we've learned are ubiquitous here, responded to our outstretched hand by stopping and driving back. We had no intention of riding in the back of a motorcycle in the dark and brisk night (it was pretty cool here the first week or so), but after he literally risked his life to drive against traffic to come back to get us, and considering our lack of other options (not many taxis had driven by and they were all full [and, we've learned, all have a reportedly enforced restriction allowing them to only carry three passengers, including kids]) we decided to risk it. Why not, after all we'd been through that day, end our lives in a fiery motorcycle crash tumbling into the large ravine at the side of the road. We loaded up all our stuff, including our two now-sleeping kids, into the bed of the motorcycle (I don't know what else to call it) and he took off down the hill. It was terrifying. I could have sworn I took some pictures mid-trip, but there are nowhere to be found. Dissapointing. We thought he had a clear idea of where we wanted to go, but saying "the old city" in Arabic apparently wasn't good enough, because once we finally made it clear that we wanted to go to "Plaz Batha" he had to retrace his path, and then turn on a very windy road up one of the hills and through a different gate than the one he first went into and down a few more roads to take us to the square. We payed him plus a little extra and got off in the square, now freezing and still without real plans.

We tried to phone our friends on a pay phone behind a little shop, but didn't get any answer. Neither of us had ever used a pay phone before (kids these days, right?) so we weren't even sure how to really do it, especially since all the instructions were in either French or Arabic. Cait thought she might have left a message after a few tries so we decided to wait a while to see if they would show up, and then, if not, stay in one of the hotels nearby. We had almost just decided to stay at hotels first, near the train station and second, nearby the McDonalds, which would have been great options in hindsight, but had both times decided to forge on.

We waited for twenty minutes or so, constantly having to dismiss young men anxious to book us into hotels that they were apparently informal representatives of, and then, after that didn't work, their anxious demands to sell us hashish. Cait decided to try calling one more time before we gave up and got a room, while I smoked hashish (just kidding) but, miraculously (as it seemed at the time) we got through to Kyle, one member of the Kyle and Vareena (he's an American Divinity PhD [is divinity a PhD program?] candidate, she's a German PhD candidate studying the Middle East, who are both taking Arabic classes here) duo who we were hoping to stay with, and after 15 minutes or so more of shivering in the cold, they showed up to walk us through the winding streets to their house.

So, after a little prodding to get our kids back to sleep, and a few hasty snacks, we all collapsed in exhaustion on blankets and mats scattered in their oddly spacious (for the US, not for Fez we learned) front sitting room and brought to end the most harrowing day so far of our entire trip. We had finally made it to Fez after one last adventure, which seemed a fitting end to the trek that felt like it would never end.

Summary: Algeciras to Tangier to Fez and then a cross town journey to our friends apartment.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Eurocco Day 9, 10, 11: To, in, and from Madrid

After we finished our train ride into Madrid with a lovely breakfast in the dining car (in which I've never been before) we began our stay of nearly three full days and two nights in Madrid. Our time there was mainly spent trying to find something child friendly to do with the kids besides go to playgrounds, but we found it difficult with most of the entertainment here geared toward wealthy adults, except for the playgrounds, which were everywhere and were often very nice. So, while we did get to see some nice things, we mostly got pulled in by the playgrounds, but that's the way our trip seems to want to go, so that's fine.

Still sleepy

After our train ride ended, we took another train into downtown (riding next to the six or seven members of the staff of the sleeper train,y who appeared to be best friends) and got off at Puerta del Sol, one of the main plazas of Madrid. After a little searching, we found our Hostel, Hostel Oliver, just off the square. The lady at the desk was nice enough to give us a room for four that was empty at the same price as our room for two was supposed to be. The room was nice, and blurred the line between hotel and hostel more than the other places we stayed.

We then made our way to the Parque de Retiro, where we would end up spending most of our time in Madrid. It is a large and beautiful park with many varied playgrounds. Cait played with the kids at the park while I went in search of food. I brought back empanadas and pastries and we had a nice picnic in the park. We explored the park a little bit and then went to a museum near the park, but it was not really kid friendly. We tried one more, but they needed our passports, which we didn't have. So we found another playground and played there until we thought it was late enough to go home. However, we made the mistake of buying Atticus ice cream too late in the day, and he was hard to get to sleep, but a walk around town eventually got him, but not Tallulah, who took even longer. Oh well, a trip like this is expected to disrupt sleep schedules pretty regularly.

Roar of joy 1
Lulah's backwards wave
Roar of joy 2

The next day, we saw the royal palace (although the royalty no longer lives there) and the national cathedral, both impressive but leading to the inevitable question of what could have been done with all the resources that went into constructing and maintaining such buildings. Oh well. Atticus and I had a good time playing pretend tennis (one of his new favorite activities) in the big court between the palace and the cathedral.

On our way back to Parque del Retiro to meet Cait's friend for lunch, we stopped in at an Egyptian temple that had been moved from Egypt when the Aswan Dam caused its original sight to flood. It was a little odd to see an Egyptian temple in the middle of a Spanish park, but it was interesting seeing some of the practical results if the dam that I read so much about in my undergrad studies and heard so much about in Egypt.

Then a long walk to the park, with a fruitless search for public restrooms (we ended up buying €2 of Burger King so we could use theirs). We grabbed some food at a Carrefore and met Cait's friend Kari at the park for a picnic. Cait and Kari were on the same cheerleader squad all through high school (that Cait cheered in high school is a little known and often startling tidbit, even less known and more startling is that she was the captain of the squad and dated football team captain. I know, right?). They also went to Sonic every day before dance in middle school and have known each other since the first grade. So she's known Cait about five times as long as me. Anyway, we had a good lunch while the kids played.

After that, we tried some museums again, but no go again, because all the ones we went to seemed too pricey for the fifteen minutes our kids would be good there. So, we went to the same park we went to the day before and had an overall exactly identical day to the one before, but both were still nice. We fit the kids to bed a bit earlier and watched a movie together on the iPad and then tried to sleep.

The third day, we made a concerted effort to go to a museum (anthropology this time) an it failed miserably. The kids wouldn't stop touching everything and the guards were all super strict especially since we were the only ones there. We maybe should have just sprung for the more expensive ticket and the longer trip out o the aquarium or other kid oriented place, but who knows how that would have gone either.

So we made one last trek into Parque del Retiro, and even on our third straight day there we saw a whole new part of the park, and, in the end, we left a good portion of the park and even it's playgrounds unexplored.

I went out to get lunch and we played at a new playground until rain threatened and we decided to head to the nearby train station to prep for our trip to Algeciras in the southern part of Spain. It was a long train ride, the longest one where Atticus didn't nap, but it went okay considering. We've learned a lot about how manage our kids, even while trying to limit iPad time. A rotation between kids, any handy distraction for Tallulah and a lot of made-up stories and art projects with whatever is available for Atticus can really go a long way.

Creepy baby statue outside of train station
Come on train let's go
Atticus's and my favorite iPad game: Blockheads (a free and easier version of Minecraft)
He doesn't only play iPad

Still, we got into Algeciras pretty late, we stayed out long enough to get yet more subpar takeout food and then we all collapsed into bed and slept pretty well.

Summary: Three days of our Europe travels in the parks of Madrid.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Eurocco Days 5 and 6: Relaxation in Cambridge

I could have sworn I already posted this, but it was such a lovely stay, I have to make sure it is preserved.

I'm sure we will be forever grateful for the two restful days we were able to spend in Cambridge with our friend Jessica and her husband Tom. We ate good food, had good conversations and observed good playtime between our kids.

On Sunday I woke up early when Atticus needed some food and drink. He fell back asleep but I didn't, so I read on my own (Bridge to Terabithia, which I felt was fitting in a house where half-a-dozen young adult and juvenile fiction books are read a week by the four girls in the house). Cait woke up with Tallulah and they went to church with Jessica's family, while I went up and slept with Atticus who was a little under the weather and still sleeping hard.

There was a birthday party for the kids in the afternoon, and with a little cajoling on Atticus's part we got both the kids into the backyard party where they stayed for several hours. After that it was dinner and our first attempt at getting the kids to sleep, which failed because they had slept so late. Tallulah eventually want to sleep but I was up pretty late with Atticus until he finally went down.

The next day, we got up and took a bus to downtown Cambridge where we explored the campus, which was lovely, wandered around town, an ended up at a big park and the playground next door. We were able to keep Atticus awake on the way home and we all went to bed at a good time.

Our time at Cambridge had come to a close much too soon, but it was a great break. It was fun to come to know a family for the first time in a foreign country and to see how they managed a very active and full lifestyle, with two careers and four active kids. Their family runs so smoothly and the girls get along really well and read SO much. While I'm sure we were sub-par house guests being so jet lagged and holding to weird sleeping schedules, I think a good friendship was forged.

Summary: Two lovely days in Cambridge with the Finnigans.

Queen Lulah bestowing favors
Sir Atticus
And this shall be my hat
Lulah walks in on the nightly joint Minecraft session. Adorably nerdy.
Atticus'first experience with Xbox Kinnect
Lulah looking on


King's College
Cambridge has the most unused and beautiful grass of any place I've been.
"With the crumbs on Nature Valley bars we shall feed the world!" Somebody remind me where that quote is from.
Ah, back before my beard became an untamed jungle
The library in the mall, great idea.