Monday, May 26, 2014

Eternal Running

In Canada, we have Tough Mudder, a super-fun but super-long race. Here in Jaén province, we had an obstacle race called Eternal Running in Cazorla, a nearby village. There were things similar to Tough Mudder: crawling under barbed wire, cement tunnels, and water obstacles. One difference in Tough Mudder is that the water included huge chunks of ice! C-O-L-D. Here, nothing. I laughed at the locals who plunged in and yelled, "Que frio!" For me, it was like a pleasant bath.

Another difference: in Tough Mudder we had the "pleasure" of getting on our bellies and crawling through mud. Here, ROCKS. Tiny, sharp pebbles and sometimes, a bit of broken glass. It wasn't included on purpose, rather someone didn't clean thoroughly before the race. Just one example of how safety features were largely missing in Cazorla. Another example: we climbed olive harvest trucks (of course) piled with hay bales 2 - 3 metres high. In Tough Mudder, climbing obstacles were higher but if you fell there were foamies or the soft earth to land on. In Eternal Running, there was the pavement. That was it. You can bet I held on for dear life.

Also, in Tough Mudder the water obstacles can be deep. Only one was deep in Cazorla, near the end. By then I was extremely tired, and had no idea how deep it was until plunging in at the end of a huge slide. I suddenly found myself underwater, and in my tired state struggled for what felt like forever to the surface. Even though the side of the pit wasn't far, it took many scary seconds to crawl and kick towards it.

Near-death experiences aside, there were some interesting cultural differences. At the food stop in the middle of the Eternal Running race, a food and drink table had been set up. In Tough Mudder, this table consists of bananas and water. In Cazorla, they served 3 types of munchies, wine, beer, ... and water. Everyone stopped running to nibble and sip. Because Eternal Running is timed, the competitive Canadian in me reached in, grabbed water, and drank it while continuing to run.

Not that this improved my time in any way. I was #424 out of about 500 runners.

There was some cool stuff that happened after the race. For example, a couple got married live before crossing the finish line.

Then Eternal Running served everyone paella - cooked in a giant pan. It was so delish, I returned for seconds.

The race was such a fun experience! I'm glad I got a chance to experience this type of obstacle race in a different country.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stranded in Spain, Pt. 4: Morocco Madhouse

As the clouds cleared during our descent into Fez, I was shocked by how green the countryside was. The weather, too, was a surprise – it was foggy.

The taxi dropped us off in the middle of the Fez medina, where our hotel host met us. Good thing, because her business was located in the middle of a maze (Google map the Fez medina, you'll see what I mean). The path became so small at times that a human could barely squeeze through. B walked into the hotel lobby first while I waited behind. After hugging T and Tam she said, “Oh, I forgot a bag at the door,” and she came to get me. The look of shock on T's face was hilarious; for five full seconds it was as if he had no idea who I was. When he realized, we all hugged and laughed. It was a great moment because we'd overcome the hardships and had reunited.

Fez was my first exposure to the medina life. I dressed somewhat more conservatively than usual, but we experienced almost no harassment because we had T with us. When Tam was alone in Casablanca, it was a different story. It was also my first exposure to the maze-like streets of the medina. There was a cacophany of sounds and sights. People were extremely friendly, but most of them were also trying to make a buck. I couldn't count how many times people offered to guide us to the tannery or back to our hotel. We'd circumvent them and ask store owners instead, who also tried to make a buck by luring us into their shops. “It's free to look!” they'd say.
Lost - again

Tiny streets

The famous tannery
My first lesson in Morocco transportation was when we tried to take the train from Meknés to Marrakech. “It'll be six hours,” said Tam. It turned out to be only three, because the train was so incredibly packed that we had to stand / sit in a tiny corner of the compartment the entire time. It was a nightmare. We tried to busy ourselves with games or reading, but when we got to the capital Rabat, we decided at that moment to escape. As we attempted to disembark, people's hands were reaching for our bags. I was extremely afraid it would get stolen, so I didn't accept anyone's help. But when the hands were reaching for my arm to assist me down the stairs, I realized they weren't trying to steal from me, rather to help me off. I waved and smile my appreciation. On the platform, we were so happy to have escaped the hell of the train that we cheered and did a group hug.
More Morocco green

How I sat for 3 hours
We ended up renting a “grand taxi” to Marrakech. A long, expensive drive, but worth not having to deal with the train. It was nighttime when we arrived. As we walked towards our hotel, I saw smoke and lights in the distance. “What is that, a riot?” I asked. T answered, “That, Aggie, is the Djemaa el-Fna. We're about to enter a madhouse."

If you want to visit a place that is the answer to every stereotype you've ever had about Morocco, visit the Djemaa el-Fna at night, the busiest, biggest plaza in Marrakech's medina. Pushy vendors, snake charmers, drumming in every want it, it's there. One henna vendor would NOT let go of my hand. T had to physically lift me by my shoulders to get me out of her grasp.

On our second day we met up with a Couchsurfer who knew quite a bit about Marrakech. We accompanied him to some extranjero activities: first stop, a cafe where there was trivia in English! Afterwards, we sauntered over to a karaoke bar, and proceeded to sing our drunken hearts out. My first pick, "We are Young" by F.u.n., wasn't great. I grew some balls for my next pick: "Rolling on the River", the Tina Turner version. I brought out the Tina in me and proceeded to purr, shimmy, and belt it out. The club was instantly on their feet - EVERYONE danced! It was my best audience reaction ever. Afterwards, a local came up to me and said, "I hope you are not offended, but we want to give you a nickname - Creedence China Revival!" I laughed and said, "Okay, cool!"
There's nothing like going to a karaoke bar and hearing English favourites belted out in foreign accents. And having people run onto the stage to join you in a true multi-cultural version of "We Are The World". That night in the karaoke bar really encapsulated what this trip was about. Yes, it was too short. Yes, at times it tired me out. But near the beginning of our journey, when B and I were on the train heading from Málaga to Madrid, she apologized for keeping me from my trip and I responded, "I honestly don't mind." Because this trip wasn't about putting another pinpoint on my map, rather it was about forging alliances. When I left Marrakech, I hugged B goodbye and, commenting on everything we'd been through together, told her, "You know we're sisters now, right?" And with a chug of the taxi engine and a final look out the back window, I left.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stranded in Spain, Pt. 3: Madrid Madness

B felt bad about me missing out on Morocco and going with her to Madrid, but to be honest I was looking forward to seeing my friend Gina. Plus, even though I moved away from the city, living in a pueblo made me appreciate my visits to the capital.

Gina was generous enough to put us up at her place, and her roomate was kind enough to allow me to sleep in her room while she was away. B and I exhaustedly dropped our bags to the ground upon arrival, and we went out for tapas. Like a Madrileña, Gina sought out a crowded outdoor plaza and we settled in. B was enchanted by the busyness, especially since it was a weekday night. Back home, people were not crowding plazas, as was typical here. It was nice to see B enjoying Madrid's nightlife atmosphere, despite the setbacks she'd had.
Keep calm and drink cafe con leche.

Where you go to get a passport.

 Night after night, we went out late. One evening, we watched Real Madrid beat Barcelona to win the King's Cup. Gina excitedly said, “Oh my god, I think they're going to come here to the town hall tonight! We HAVE to go!” I had trouble believing the team would fly directly from Valencia and parade down to Madrid's famous fountain, but apparently she was right. When we arrived at the town hall we were joined by 70,000 fans.

We stood in a spot that afforded us a great view of the fountain. And stood. And stood. The hours ticked by. Gina and I were excited we were going to see the team in-person, but when I turned around to see how B was doing, she was crouched on the ground, holding her face in her hands. “Are you okay?” I inquired. She didn't move. Alarmed, I told Gina that something was wrong – B was about to faint! She sprung into action and, in Spanish, informed a nearby police officer that our friend was in distress. They hauled her over the metal barrier and put her in a waiting ambulance. B's head weakly craned up to look at me, just as they put her inside, and I felt crushed. I begged the attendants to let me sit with her, but they wouldn't have it. Gina cried, believing it was her fault because we'd been going out late like Spaniards and B wasn't used to it. But I assured her that she wasn't culpable. The stress of the past week, plus the time difference, plus the noise and cigarette smoke at the Real Madrid celebration, had all accumulated into a huge tidal wave that knocked B over.

After being treated, B was released and, although I insisted on a taxi, she insisted she was fine to walk home. So we did. After that, we took it easy and discussed Morocco, as her new passport became ready and she could finally continue her vacation. The last thing I'd said to T in Málaga had been, “I don't think I can fly to Morocco at this point because it'd be a lot more money than I'd budgeted.” But after chilling out in Madrid for a few days, I felt a pull to see everyone again. To show my middle finger to the thief in Málaga by overcoming the setback, and continuing with my trip. B was in agreement. We decided to surprise T, and I booked my airline ticket to Fez. Meanwhile, B put a fake post on Facebook, thanking me for my help, as if I was intending to stay in Madrid.

(to be continued...)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Stranded in Spain, Pt. 2: Disaster in Málaga

We were on top of the world, basking in the Málaga sunlight, on our way to a country we'd only dreamt about: Morocco. As we enjoyed our lunch at the cafe close to the bus station, we laughed and joked, sipping on cold beers. My friend B got up to get her wallet to pay. She turned and stopped. 

"Where's my backpack?" she said.

I thought it had fallen behind our luggage. But as we pushed each piece to the side, searching vainly, my blood ran cold as I realized it was gone. B's passport, wallet, and camera had been in that backpack.

"Shit," I thought, as I remembered the old man who'd sat at the table beside us. He'd been staring intently, but I'd dismissed it as a Spain thing, where everyone stares. I sprinted towards the side streets, hoping to spot him, but knowing it was futile. My friend's passport had been stolen, and she couldn't go to Morocco.

Right away, we went to the police station, and were told we had to go to the Canadian consulate in Málaga - but the next day, as it was a Sunday. We felt down, but we made the most of our situation by eating at chiringuitos (beachside food shacks), El Pimpi's (a famous Málaga restaurant), and admiring the beaches.
I messaged a friend who happened to live in Málaga, and she graciously allowed us to stay at her apartment. However, bad news awaited us the next day: the consulate could only give B emergency papers to return to Canada within 7 days. If she wanted an actual passport, she'd have to go to the embassy in either Madrid or Barcelona and pay a high fee for them to process one quickly. To say B wasn't happy would be an understatement. There was only one solution I could see: I'd go with her to Madrid, as I knew the city somewhat and had a friend there, and T would meet Tam in Morocco, who was alone in Casablanca. To catch the incoming train headed for Madrid, we left T with a flurry of bear hugs, and doubts about whether we'd be able to afford the plane tickets to meet him again in Morocco. Not to be overly dramatic, but like Frodo and his company at the end of LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring, our group split apart.
(to be continued....)