Rolling Through Cultural Dessert

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Home Away From Home, Imlil, Morocco

Gawking at the jagged vertical splendor of the Dolomite Mountains, or plodding slowly up a long, dry valley in the High Atlas Mountains, or imagining 12 centuries of intrigue within a mosque-turned-cathedral can only reveal the faintest outlines of the giant heaps of cultural riches of Italy, Morocco, and Spain. But they are tasty morsels. These settings shape the culture of the people who live there.

During 2010 I visited those three countries. I wandered around and tried to photograph some distinctive scenes and learn about their cultures. This posting is a look back at some of the memories of getting around in those countries.

Our own culture is nearly transparent to us. It is just how things are in our daily world. We take it for granted. But when we travel we notice culture and tradition by their contrasts to our norms.

Architecture, art, literature, languages, religions, education, government, transportation, food, greetings, gender relations, holidays, and many other expressions of culture and tradition make travel interesting.

You learn that other cultures and other traditions work. Brief glimpses don’t reveal differences in personal liberty and fulfillment. But you see happy people who seem contented. Some of them appear more contented than those who have much more material wealth, while some families do stagger under generations of poverty. The contrasts of wealth are extreme in some places. There is a great deal to think about as you walk village streets, or drive through, or ride a train through  towns in these countries.

This morning I was unpacking and cleaning my old and trusty rolling carry-on luggage. We just returned from a family Christmas reunion. I am amazed at how well that luggage has held up over the years.

As I looked at the wheels my mind started drifting to all the places they had rolled through this year. I thought about those towns in Spain, Morocco, and Italy which are still vivid memories.

The port of Málaga and the torn-up streets along the river between our motel and the train station were a workout for those wheels. Ancient Cádiz led us down the coast to Zahora. We let the luggage rest in a small beach house while we explored and photographed Los Canos de Meca, Barbate, Conil de la Frontera, Zahara de los Atunes, Vejer de la Frontera and our local beach during the day. The autumn heat taught us the logic and beauty of the siesta. It also made the tapas option on the menu our only choice. Eating light was appropriate. You have to know how to order coffee the way you like it. This was a prime assignment for me for the first couple of days in each country. In Spain it was cortado doble! I photographed architecture, cathedrals, and street scenes in the beautiful hilltop village of Arcos de la Frontera. I learned about the frontier between religions in Andalucía. We spent an interesting night in a bull fighting arena in Jerez de la Frontera at a flamenco festival. After the train ride from Cádiz it was a long walk from the train station in Córdoba to our motel, but the luggage rolled on over paving stones, curbs, and concrete. In Granada we stood under an overhang near the train station waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t. So we deployed our plastic garbage bag rain covers for the luggage and walked briskly to our motel. When we returned to Málaga we had to negotiate the construction zone around the train station again, but no luggage failures. (Local spellings are used here throughout.)

It was a long train ride from Málaga to Algeciras where I took the ferry to north Africa. Tanger, Morocco is a challenge for travelers and luggage. It is a rugged industrial port which is well-worn and full of street hustlers. I had a long walk uphill to find my decrepit hotel. Old cobblestones were a hard workout for the wheels. An even longer walk the next morning to the train station was fortunately mostly over newer sidewalks. The train station in Tanger is new and shiny. I was supposed to be met at the train station in Fes by a taxi arranged by the hotel, but we missed each other. I got in a cab and started toward the old walled city center, the medina. We went only one block before the driver stopped in the middle of the street, jumped out, and got into a violent shouting argument with someone standing by the street. The cab door was hanging open in the traffic and I was alone in the cab as a small crowd gathered.  They were yelling in Moroccan Arabic so I never knew what it was about and it was unresolved when the driver returned. We went one more block and he stopped and picked up a friend who wanted to ride in the same direction. When I finally got to the gate of the medina he stopped and told me that my hotel was 200 meters ‘that way’. No cars can navigate the maze of tiny alleys and 200 meters provided plenty of rough cobblestones and many intersections. I was lucky that there were signs to the hotel. The taxi ride and the tumult of the crowded noisy alleys in Fes were intimidating but I was almost always treated with respect and kind hospitality. I learned a lot about Fes history, traditional crafts, religion, and culture. The medina was a total immersion. When I wheeled my load back up the hill to the gate to leave Fes I had an even more interesting cab ride. There are lots of official red Petite Cabs in Fes. I was waiting for one to drive by when a grizzled grandpa in a funky helmet rode up on a motorcycle pedicab. He insisted that he was a safe driver and would get me to the train station in good shape. I loaded my luggage and jumped in the open truck bed and hung on as my luggage and I bounced around through the potholes and traffic anarchy of Fes. But we did arrive safely. The longest train ride (8 hours) was from Fes to Marrakech. Due to a bad map that luggage really got a workout rolling over the stones and broken sidewalks around the train station as I circled the area trying to find the motel. Finally I gave up and took a cab. The next day was interesting for that luggage as it started the day in the back of a new SUV driving into the High Atlas Mountains and ended the day in a saddlebag on a mule in the village of Imlil. The photo above shows the entrance to Dar Imlil, a guest house. If you end up in Imlil someday, it should be high on your list for lodging. It is a great place. The last test for the luggage in Morocco was Casablanca. The urban streets would have been tough, but the cab driver found the motel (after an unsettling amount of wandering) and let me out at the door.

The Casablanca airport was smooth and easy for those wheels, as was Rome and Milano. Going through security and checking the luggage in Casablanca was very similar to US airports, except I couldn’t carry it on board along with my camera pack-0nly one item. But it showed up promptly in Milano ready for Italy. The next morning I had an interesting drive across northern Italy from Milano through Bergamo, Brescia, Verona,Vicenza, Treviso and Belluno on my way into the Dolomite Mountains. I was on the Autostrada (toll expressway) for most of the way so I could only see domes and cathedrals on hills in the distance. I eventually found my way on the narrow, winding roads in the mountains to the tiny beautiful village of Cibiana di Cadore. I rolled the luggage into the hotel and it stayed there safely while I explored the Dolomites. I even drove to Venice one day and to Kitzbuhel, Austria on another day. The self-reliance and love-of-life typical of mountain people were on display in every little village. Just as each village in Morocco had its mosque and minaret, so each village in the Dolomites had its cathedral and steeple. And since tourism and mountain recreation is vitally important, the villages are decorated with colorful shutters, hanging flower baskets, and artistic homes. Having a car in Italy allowed me to explore the Dolomites and I got a good workout. It took several days to get used to the narrowness with cars coming the other way on hairpin corners and big drop-offs. But the scenery is simply exquisite. I took so many photographs that I got physically exhausted from holding the camera.

Finally I had to pack up and head back to Milano. I put the strap around my faithful luggage and headed to the airport. It had navigated cobblestones, broken sidewalks, mule leavings, curbs, airport security, stairs, and over-packing again. No problem. During 2010 it also made trips to visit family in California and Oregon, USA. It went through a lot.

I tried to mail home and stuff in mementos from the many places that I visited. But most of my keepsakes are photographs, memories, and knowledge. Each time I was faced with new culture and traditions I felt disoriented and intimidated. But quickly a few interactions taught me that the people shared similar values and that their traditions were versions of the same things I was used to. Honesty, integrity, respect, humility, and thoughtfulness were expressed in each of the cultures. There were different religions, governments, and other cultural aspects. But as many people learn from traveling, we have more values in common than we realize.

Throughout my travels this year I enjoyed the variety of cultures and traditions. And there was certainly variety. And once again I learned that variety in art, architecture, traditions, etc enriches the experiences of travel. And the more time I put into learning about them before the trip the  better my photography planning goes and the more I get out of it.

In 2011 we plan a village-to-village walking tour near Cahors, France. My faithful rolling luggage will be stowed in a hotel at the starting point and we will venture on with light packs. But we will also explore the area for a few days after our walking tour so the luggage will get a workout.

I hope that in 2011 our experiences teach us more about our shared values and the importance of human connections. I wish the same for you!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

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