Friday, October 21, 2005


I´m writing this in Tarifa, a coastal town in southern Spain. I´ve only been here a day, on my way to Madrid to catch my flight to Rome, but this town seems to be one of those perfect, trouble-free spots on Earth.

The town is mainly made up of locals, many middle-aged and elderly, and surf bums, along with the shops that cater to them. I know I´m here in the off-season, but the townspeople and the surf bums seem to get along very well. It´s strange to see something so fundamentally American (surf culture) mixing among Spanish architecture. The houses are all the same blinding shade of white, which is unbelievably beautiful when set against the azure blue sky.

There is a sign in the internet cafe that reads "One person per seat. Please, thank you." It´s hard to imagine that they had a big problem with people sharing chairs or sitting on each others´laps while online.

Tarifa has an incredible beach. The sand is like refined sugar, the water rolls in in shades of blue beyond color, and there´s a perpetual breeze that makes it very comfortable to be here. This is what I needed after Morocco. I liked Morcocco and I am glad I went, but it was hard. Two of the things I was very conscious of and wanted to avoid happened to me anyway. One was getting scammed by my "guide" into paying insanely inflated prices for things, and the other was diarrea.

I had read that you should hire a guide when going to Fes´ Medina. The Medina is the old section of town (as in 1000 years old), walled off and filled with almost 10,000 winding streets and alleyways. It´s where people live, it´s the main historic center and it is also a giant marketplace. Being there is an experience like no other. Imagine being in an outdoor shopping mall, except the streets are maybe only 10 feet across and you have to get out of the way every so often to let donkeys pass. I had read that, without a guide, you´ll be inundated with would-be guides endlessly pestering you. The reason why everyone wants to be your guide is because they get a commission on anything you buy in their presence.

I hadn´t gone to Fes to go shopping, but my guide steered me to a series of tourist trap shops. First I sat through a hand-knit rug salesman´s pitch, which was interesting and the rugs were beautiful, but extricating yourself without buying something takes a lot of work. These are the people who invented haggling, they were the merchant class in Spain many years ago (before they got kicked out) and if there´s one thing they know how to do, it´s close a sale. My guide was no help, of course, because he wanted me to buy something so he would make money.

After the rug shop came the leather goods shop. I did buy a jacket here, but paid way too much (in Moroccan terms, not American) and have been kicking myself since then. Again, the salesman was doing everything he could to get me to buy two jackets, so I felt lucky I just got away with the one.

Then came the metal engravers. At this point, I didn´t have the patience to play along. I didn´t want a metal table or plates. If the salesman are supposed to be such masters at reading people, what the hell did they see in me that made them think for a minute that I would ever want a silver teapot that was vaguely in the shape of a camel?

It was a waste of a day. I returned to the medina the next day on my own, and discovered that it´s fairly easy to negotiate if you stay on the main streets. There are several color-coded paths through the medina, and plenty of tourist based "you are here" signs. It was frustrating because I knew about the whole tourist trap scheme and wanted to avoid it, and fell into anyway.

Same with the diarrea. Well, I didn´t fall into that, thank God. But I had that it´s almost a given that tourists get diarrea in Morocco. I had been fairly careful in what I had eaten and only drank bottled water. Until I forgot and had a salad my first night in Rabat. Uncooked veggies: that´s a no-no. I felt a little ill after the salad, but the next morning felt good enough to see some sites. But by noon, I felt ill. I went back to the hotel, stopping off to buy some water and a Coke. As I climbed the stairs to my room, I thought I must look like a junkie trying to kick. Check into a cheap hotel in Morocco, lock yourself in your room with only water and soda. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day either in bed or in the bathroom. Was my thinking I had soiled myself while high in Amsterdam a premonition?

So Morocco was hard. A fascinating culture with beautiful cities, but you realize very quickly how niave you are about the land.

Watching the sun set on the beach today, I felt very happy to be back in Spain, and looking forward to going to Italy. I´m only half done with my travels. I´m hoping that my time in Italy will be as easy as my walk on the beach tonight. We´ll see.

PS - Everyone make sure you tell me how nice my new leather jacket looks, cause God knows I paid enough for it.


Lynn said...

Well, as long as you're not a single woman, you should have no problems in Italy. I assume you left your drag at home? The men there drove me insane - an old man actually grabbed my boobs!

Just remember - hold tight to your things, don't sleep on the train, and eat gelato every day while thinking of me. In fact: if you would, smear some on a postcard and drop it in the mail!


Iva said...

Hi, John,
Italy is wonderful! When you go to Sorrento and Capri, the whole area is just wonderful...the Amalfi Coast is so beautiful and the downtown area of Sorrento is peaceful and, well, serene!
Will you take a tour of Pompeii? It would be absolutely tragic to be so close and not go there. I hope you enjoy Italy as much as I did, it is a wonderful country.
Love you,

Cat said...

Ahhh, I visited many of the places you write about, including Granada and Tarifa (and Morocco, Portugal, & Italy). I stayed in a hotel above a restaurant right by the square surrounded by palm trees and benches. I remember the beach and the castle. How nice for you to be able to travel like this. Looking forward to revisiting some of the places I've been through your posts!

Cat said...

Ah ha! You referred to Rick Steves in a previous post. When I lived in France I used his guides to help me plan my side trips. No wonder your itinerary looked familiar :)

Carol said...

Italy will be a cakewalk. Just walking around and admiring the little old ladies wearing 40-yr-old Chanel suits on their Vespas is enough to keep one diverted. Not to mention great food, art, architecture, wine....

p.s. am I the only one who finds strange symbolic meaning in the word verification gibberish?

the hanged man said...

Lynn -
You know I take at least one drag outfit with me everywhere I go. I brought my Mary Tyler Moore number with me to Europe. My boobs will be free for the grabbing...
Don´t sleep on the train? Even if it´s an overnight with a sleeper car? Eating the gelato every day will be a snap.

Mom - Yep, I am definitely going to Pompeii. This half of the trip should be easier since I´ll be spending a couple of days in each location. Less hopping around.

Cat - Guilty as charged. Yeah, the Rick Steves' books have been an invaluable guide as to what to see and how to get there. The only spot I ran into trouble was in Lisbon, but I think the city has changed a great deal since his guide to Portugal was published.

Carol - Hmmm...the word verification for this post was "ofqsyhih." Could that be a reminder to "Oh FuQ, SaY HI, Hanlon?"