These posts show some photos from the 17-day Road Scholar tour I just took in Cuba. We flew from Miami to Santiago de Cuba, the main city in the southeast of Cuba. We had a comfortable bus and drove all the way from Santiago to Havana, with stops (mostly in cities) along the way, but also the Unesco World Heritage town of Trinidad. The U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control specifies requirements for Educational and People-to-People travel. We’re supposed to have two educational and/or people-to-people events every day. This makes for a trip with a lot of interesting content: lectures from university professors and other professionals; dance and music demonstrations; meetings with artists; and a lunch with some seniors who run an activity center for jubilados (retired folks).
I’m going to concentrate here on showing you some interesting photos rather than try to explain what we learned about life in Cuba, its situation in relation to the U.S. etc. As I write, I’m at Amy’s house in Miami for a couple of days. As soon as I get home I’ll be busy looking for a new apartment and preparing to teach English in Costa Rica during January. So we’ll see how many photos I manage to publish of Cuba!
The cities we visited had pedestrian malls that ran two or three blocks. This is the city of Guantánamo. It’s a pretty mall, but shopping for Cuban residents is very, very sparse: not only do they have very little money, there’s not a lot on the shelves. (¡Cuidado! With a little reflection, most will realize that the bay and prison were named after a city where people have actually lived for a few centuries.)
I really enjoyed myself in Cádiz even though I spent most of my time there lying around recovering from GI problems I picked up in Morocco (Netflix Spain had the Matrix films, so I watched those. I also had lots of thrillers and mysteries on Kindle to read.) After Morocco I switched to touristic apartments for Cádiz, Seville and Lisbon so that I could have absolute privacy and eat from the grocery store instead of always having to wait until dinnertime at restaurants. (I found tapas to be unsatisfying, because by early evening I’m generally ready for a full meal.) This was a good thing when I discovered that I needed some serious downtime when I got to Cádiz.
I had a sunny, comfortable apartment that overlooked a town square that was essentially the neighborhood playground. Every evening between around 6 and 9 the square was filled with kids playing and parents gossiping. No one was terribly hungry, nor were mothers worried about cooking dinner, because the kids went home from noon until 2pm to have a big lunch and a rest. Supper would be something that could be prepared quickly after the evening outing (at any rate, these are my assumptions.) The other wonderful thing about this apartment was that it was a five-minute walk from the sea.
There were a couple of (mis-named) supermercados very close to my place. One of my go-to supermercado comfort meals in Spain was frozen breaded chicken breasts, which I fried slowly in olive oil and usually had with couscous and a little salad. I was also addicted to anchovy-stuffed green olives. I always found oatmeal, but usually in large packages so I traveled with open packages of oatmeal, cans of olives, a little jar of Nescafe Classico instant coffee in case there wasn’t a coffee maker, and a package of tiny plastic vials of olive oil. I found a type of turkey ham/salami that made a really good sandwich along with some cheese, but I also made great sandwiches with small packets of sliced chorizo. Across the plaza I also discovered a vending machine area where hungry visitors could get something to eat after all the stores were closed.
When I felt up to walking, there were miles of seaside esplanade to stroll along. Part of my walking route went inland and high for views of the port and the train yard. Cádiz is a beautiful, clean city with an old town and another more modern area with wider streets and higher apartments. The yellow color of its buildings gives it a cheerful sunny atmosphere. I took a couple of buses along their routes to see some of these other parts of the city. Finally I ventured into the old town pedestrian areas, which were pretty much the same as the neighborhood I was staying in.
In 1929 the Spanish hosted the Ibero-American Exposition in Seville. They went all-out with the ceramics. Everything that could be rendered ceramically or decorated with tiles, they accomplished with ceramics: balustrade posts, stair risers, floors, ceilings, wall friezes, etc. There are decorative jars all over. The interior of this huge semicircular building houses government offices. The exterior has stairs and galleries with ceramic ornamentation throughout.
Perhaps the most varied and interesting work is the Provincial Alcoves, where each Spanish province has a map and a representative painting in an elaborately decorated alcove. These run along a huge semicircle on the bottom wall of the main building. (Note: I try to keep my fellow tourists out of my photos, but don’t assume there were none. There was a large and noisy class of Spanish kids, plus numerous tourists from all over the world.)
The Parque de Maria Luisa was also part of the exposition. This is where I found the frog fountain shown in Ceramics I, as well as decorative jars on pedestals.
There’s also a little open seating area that’s a meticulous monument to the novel Don Quixote.
My visit to the Centro Ceramica Triana in Seville gave me a nice overview of the history of Spanish ceramics. The Triana ceramics factories closed down during the 20th century, but someone had the foresight and funding to build an attractive museum to commemorate the work of these artisans. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ceramics was an important medium for sign-making and other exterior decoration.
Triana was actually outside of Seville for many years. Potteries are often away from cities because of smoke from the kilns (also true for Morocco.) Triana now is a lively neighborhood of Seville, but this painting shows what it was like when it was an artisan village.
My sister Amy & I have been collecting small ceramics from Italy for a couple of decades. I try to add to her collection when I travel. Unfortunately, on this trip I didn’t have a lot of extra luggage space, so instead of a plate, all you get is this post, Amy!
The use of ceramic tiles in hallways and on fountains adds to the color and sparkle of Andalucia. The colors can be intense, ceramic wears nicely outdoors, and tiles can be copied and replaced if necessary. The use of ceramic tiles for building ornamentation came to Spain during the days of Al-Andalus, so there are many similarities between the ways tiles have been used in Morocco and the way they have been used in Spain. In addition, Spain has its own heritage of glazed and painted pottery and decorative tiling.
Amy and I generally found that Italian ceramics follow a historical design lineage, so that modern potteries are still producing traditional Italian designs, or newer designs are derived from traditional regional practices. In Spain, however, I ran into trouble trying to find examples of “traditional” ceramic pieces being produced today. I found out why at the Centro Ceramica in Triana (see also the following post.)
First, there was a hiatus in Spanish ceramic production during the late 17th and 18th centuries, so that any developing traditions were rolled back to basic household pottery. Then, when these factories got going again in the late 19th and early 20th century, they promoted ceramic tiles for all sorts of uses, including commercial signs of all sizes, street signs, house numbers and of course interior decoration. One important and traditional technique that they did import from Italy, though, was creating entire paintings with glaze on large tiles.
In the meantime, there is a definite connection between Moroccan ceramics produced today and traditional tiling found in both Southern Spain and Morocco dating from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Since the use of ceramics for exterior and interior building ornamentation came from the Muslim world (who probably got it from the Romans and their Byzantine successors) it was interesting to see how tiles and mosaics were used in Morocco. I didn’t visit any mosques: only a few large houses that had been renovated in traditional style. In general, the Moors decorated their lower walls and fountains with ceramic tiles and used more fragile carving for higher up. Morocco still sticks with tiles made from small shapes (i.e. mosaic.) The Spanish moved on to painting their tiles: something which opened up all sorts of possibilities.
My customary guided tour in Fes included a visit to a ceramics showroom that also had some of the requisite artisans working to provide tourists with demonstrations of their crafts.
The riad where I stayed in Fez had been completely renovated and redecorated in the traditional style for large houses. Carved wood and mosaic tiles made up most of the wall ornamentation, but there was also some of the intricate carved plaster work that has also survived in Spain and Morocco in mosques and madrasas (mainly, I think because it’s high up.)
While Granada has the Alhambra, finished in the 13th and 14th centuries by the ruling Nasrid Emir, Seville has the Alcazar. Seville was reoccupied by Christian monarchs earlier than other cities such as Granada. The Christian monarch Pedro I built the main palace of the Alcazar in Mudejar style. (This is what’s architecturally fascinating about Andalucia. While the rest of Europe was going Gothic, Christian Spain was honoring Muslim architecture by preserving and restoring it, imitating it, and combining it with Gothic elements.)
What Lisbon did with ceramics was cover entire buildings with tiles. Lisbon is well-known for their azulejos; however, I found Lisbon frustrating because all the building facades were dirty. I longed to see a block of buildings covered with sparkling clean tiles, and wondered whether these tiles from the late 19th century were cleanable or whether pollution, water and rust have permanently deteriorated their surfaces.
From the beginning of my travel planning for Spain, some wise part of me decided to do just a quick reconnaissance of Morocco. I knew that I’d regret not taking the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and at least checking Morocco out. So I booked small hotels (renovated old houses in medinas) in Tangier and Fes, with a round-trip by train between Tangier and Fes, and a day trip by bus to the “Blue Village” Chefchaoen. I stayed in renovated large houses in the medinas of both Tangier and Fes.
Travel can be still be rewarding even when it’s not being enjoyable. I can’t say that I enjoyed Morocco: I found it very stressful; in fact I just realized that my lack of appetite while I was there was probably due to being stressed out by the whole place. One problem was that while the medinas are what I came to see, they are very difficult for visitors to navigate. Tourists constantly get lost. Boys and men constantly and aggressively interrogate any tourist that pauses and looks around for a moment, or wanders into a square where there’s nothing for tourists: “What do you want?” “Where do you want to go?” “Do you need something?” These guys are hoping you will give them a tip for guiding you someplace, but they often come across as aggressive and rude, or even hostile. I often couldn’t stop myself from answering a bit rudely or telling them they needed to work on their English. And then those interactions would fester in me for a couple of hours. Another annoyance was that (male) waiters and guides tended to touch me too much, as if they had retained the colonial “courtesies” of “guiding” Western women by the arm or shoulder. I’m pretty sure they don’t try to physically steer non-related Moroccan women around the same way.
The notorious touts I found to be less obnoxious; in fact I had a long conversation with one of the shopkeepers after he had walked me through his store and I didn’t buy anything. The mobile trinket sellers seem to target groups and didn’t bother me. (One afternoon I came back to the front door of my hotel in Tangier and found a cluster of seven or eight of them waiting outside the shop across the path, while a huge group of day trippers off the ferry was being shown the wares inside. But these guys just ignored me.)
As for the women, most of the women in the medina wear hijabs (shoulder-length covering for the hair and ears) and loose clothing. In my mind, I came to associate this head covering as projecting humility and subservience, perhaps because in the West hairstyles and headgear for either sex often signal various types of confidence, pride, arrogance or even affluence by making the head appear larger. At any rate, Morocco reinforced for me Western cliches about Muslim culture. In the traditional medina, Homes are focused towards the interior and have few external windows. Women stay at home except when they’re shopping or taking the kids on a family outing to the beach (or the mall, if they’re rich.) Men are the ones you see on the streets except when the women are shopping for food. The only people hanging out in cafes drinking tea and coffee are men. I did see two hijab-clad women enjoying some coffee at an outdoor cafe, but all the other times it was tourists and Moroccan men. (This is all based on my observations of street life in the medina: I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of Moroccan women who go to jobs in offices, schools, hospitals, factories etc.) At a riad I stayed at, the women seemed to be expected to work ceaselessly all day while an additional staff person could have made their jobs a little less hectic. The owner’s mother has put the riad on the worldwide tourist map with her cooking, but I wonder if she ever gets a day off.
At any rate, in Morocco I ended up feeling kind of like Paul Theroux, who’s noted for his curmudgeonly travel writing. I’m left exploring the question of how travel is still valuable when it is uncomfortable. To what extent might I, personally, pursue more challenging travel? Right now in my burnt-out state, my plans for India or other poor countries (Cuba?) are trending in the direction of expensive guided tours.
After a comfortable night at the Tangier Hilton, which was so American it even had washcloths, getting off the ferry at the Spanish beach town of Tarifa was like opening the windows on a bright morning after a long night! The first thing I did was find my way to Cafe Azul for a brunch of an omelet, toast and smoothie served by a friendly female waiter, then headed to the bus station for the short trip to Cadiz.
Morocco is another Peace Corps country – it qualifies as possessing crucial needs that American volunteers might address.
(Goal #1: “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.” As a sidelight, I see that the wording has changed. It used to say “in meeting their need for trained men and women” which I interpreted as deliberately ambiguous in order to mean both the volunteers and the host country citizens who also receive training from and with volunteers.)
To get back to the topic, I find that average per capita income in Morocco is 40% of the world’s average (~$5,000), while Moldova manages only 27% (~$3500). Although in Morocco I’m encountering a very different and sometimes bewildering culture, there are many things that remind me of my life in Moldova. I think this is because there are certain patterns that humans adopt for living in villages and towns. I’m spending most of my time in the medinas of Tangier and Fes. A “medina” could be perhaps be defined as a dense, ancient, urban village. These are the “old towns” of Morocco, which are connected to more modern, sometimes equally poor areas. (These newer areas and the countryside remind me of Chisinau: in that context I can’t resist noting that Morocco knows how to maintain its walking pavements for secure footing, and manages to build stairs, ancient and new, with consistent riser heights. Maybe that’s the 40% vs. the 27% but probably due to thousands of years’ more experience with urban pavements and multi-story buildings.)
My amateur anthropological observation is that there are universal market patterns. People bring fruits and vegetables into the city markets every day: in Moldova by car or bus; in Morocco sometimes by donkey or mule. The markets are made up of hundreds of tiny stalls, as well as people sitting on the ground among their fresh fruit, vegetables, cheeses and milk. Markets in remoter areas are held on certain days of the week, just as the market in my village in Moldova occurred on Thursdays and Sundays.
In Morocco, there are towns whose names are a day of the week, after the day of their traditional market, even if it’s no longer held. In Viet Nam, we visited a Sunday market attended by people from rural tribes; in Tangier, many Berber women come in on Sunday to sell vegetables and cheese. As I travel by bus or train through Morocco, I see people on the road. Often they are on foot, in horse-drawn carts, and little three-stroke vehicles. The standard American Bible illustration of Mary and Joseph traveling by donkey is the sort of thing you can still see in Morocco – and it looks hot, slow and uncomfortable.
Thankful for my high station in life, I am always impressed by the human spirit – working hard in hot fields and then taking a day off to make a long trip to the market. There is the perennial hope that the year will be a good one, that there will be enough rain and that the summer won’t be too hot, but if things don’t work out for the best humans just keep doing their best to survive.
And so there are pungas here. Punga is a Romanian word for a bag or pouch (see πουγκί – “punki” – translates as pouch) so this is the word that Moldovans use for the cheap, strong woven-plastic bags of all sizes that the third world uses for carrying practically everyhing. Ever since I saw them in Romania and China I’ve looked for them in the U.S.A. to use for emergency luggage. (And indeed, I’m using one of my Moldovan pungas now for the overflow luggage on this trip – hopefully I can check it through on my flight home.)
It seems like the Spanish eat nothing but meat and potatoes, so for my second dinner in Ronda I just went to the first Italian restaurant I could find for a salad and some pasta. It was on a side street, no Trip Advisor sticker, they sliced their lettuce with a knife (although the salad was good), the wine tasted like it had been sitting around for awhile. But it was a decent meal, and just as I was finishing, a parade went by! First I saw the little girls in their first communion dresses (and the boys in their snazzy little suits), then I heard the band. It was a good procession put on by the Parish of María Auxiliadora. I was the only one eating in the restaurant that early, so the staff and I went out and watched, along with everyone else in the street.
The two floats were carried by a bunch of young men with turbans on their heads to pad them. The main float has a little plaque: “Viena 1683” – an antique baroque “carroza” for this annual fiesta. They were heading towards the church for the last day of the fiesta, where the new communicants would be presented to the Virgin.
The thing about Ronda in Andalucia is that it’s a nice Spanish town that suddenly just drops off. It’s in a foothills-y type area. The train climbed a little out of the Antequera junction (I was coming from Granada) as the olive-grove country that got hillier and hillier, but there weren’t any hairpin turns and switchbacks. I walked from the station to a block of sensible, fairly new (70s?) family apartments, pulling my rollerboard easily along a flat pedestrian area between two boulevards. After hanging around until evening, napping and enjoying the privacy of having the place to myself, I took the perpendicular pedestrian street to the historic Plaza de Toros. The whole town was out, mostly just strolling (looks like the Italians aren’t the only ones who enjoy the evening passeggiata.)
Eventually I found the bull arena – the oldest one in Spain and basically a big round white thing. After that, the end of the city.
I had to look at the Google satellite images to understand how Ronda is situated on a plateau cut in two by a deep canyon formed by the Guadalevín river, which turns right after cutting through the town and runs under the bluff to irrigate the valley below the city.
So I suddenly found myself gazing down into a beautiful valley full of fields, hearing the distant sound of goat bells. The cliffs provide a special habit for cliff-dwelling birds, and I watched some alpine swifts and kestrels doing their unbelievably competent flying stunts. (There was a sign identifying the birds; apparently there are also peregrins but I don’t think I saw any of those.)
Eventually I walked back towards the town and found the bridge, and another valley on the other side.
The question today is whether to climb down to the bottom, which I think would involve climbing up again, but maybe there’s a bus … In the meantime, these are just my first impressions. I’m just spending the day here (Tuesday May 24) before heading off to Gibraltar for another quick stop, but no doubt I’ll be viewing some more geological wonders as I see more of Ronda today.
I’m finally taking a “day off” or at least a morning off to just sit – probably followed by an early siesta (a.k.a. “going back to bed.” ) I’m in the lounge at Casa-Ana, a beautiful guest house in a village in the Alpujarras. These are foothills of the Sierra Nevadas outside of Granada. It’s an ancient agricultural area of tiny villages now gaining new life from European ex-pats and tourists. Rather than trying to blog this trip chronologically, I’m jumping to my current location.
For the last two days I’ve been tramping the ancient footpaths between the villages. This is perhaps the best walking I’ve ever done: spectacular views, varied terrain and civilization every couple of hours. These paths go past meadows, orchards, down into little forested river valleys, and past streams and acequias.
The guest house has a binder with a set of walks. For the last two days, I just chose one that looked short – to the next couple of villages, for example. Those pretty much give me 6-8 miles a day, walking from about 11 am until about 5 pm with a nice long lunch/coffee break in the middle. Dinner later is in the next village from where I’m staying, itself a 20-minute walk along the paved highway.
It’s a hard life for the inhabitants who work the land. One ex-pat told me that the area was extremely poor during Franco’s time. People moved to Grenada but kept their property here, and now they often return during the summer to work the land and host family visits. Other people from this area moved after the war to Germany, France and Argentina. The ones who chose post-war Europe did very well there and have come back to build nice houses on their land here. (A good description of this rural life can be found in Chris Stewart’s book Driving Over Lemons, which is the book that gave me the idea of visiting this area.)
One thing that’s fascinating is ancient technology. I’ve found two examples of that here: the first is the irrigation system that has been maintained since Roman times by the Romans, the various Moors, and now the Spaniards. This consists of channels (acequias) cut into rock or built along hillsides. I’ve found many that still seem to be in use. In the meantime, some of these channels are being replaced with PVC piping: much easier to maintain. Nevertheless, apparently each town has at least one person whose job it is to walk the acequias every day looking for breaks and ruptures.
Dry stone walls are also very common here. I passed a couple of guys maintaining one, tapping the stones into place (felt like it would be impolite to take a photo, lacking the Spanish to start a conversation and ask nicely.)