Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Mediterranean Get-Away

First Impressions of Barcelona
A few weeks before leaving for my vacation, my friend Alys, who’d just completed her Peace Corps service, began a long and winding journey through Europe on her way home.  Her first stop was Barcelona, from which she reported, 
Hello Barcelona. You're beautiful, but please don't make me fall in love with you. I just got out of a long term relationship with another continent and I'm still getting over it. But damn, you're temptingly sexy...”


I chuckled when I read this and then spent the next couple of weeks daydreaming about what lay ahead for me.  I mean, let’s admit it; sexy has not been in my vocabulary for a very long time.  When I arrived, I was just as smitten as she was.  This city’s got it going on!  It’s beautiful, clean, artsy, proud, colorful, exuberant, historic, organized, kind, picturesque, smart, tasty, charming….and yes, even sexy.  The only discomfort for me was that the Spaniards in this part of the country are so proud of their culture and heritage that they speak their indigenous regional language, Catalan.  Having just left a country where I struggle to communicate, I was a little worried that this might send me over the edge. But no, the Catalonians have mastered many languages, including Spanish, English and, for some, even French.  Believe it or not, I even ran into a few Wolof speakers on the streets.  For the first 24 hours, I was completely tongue-tied and my brain didn’t know what sounds to produce.  People would speak to me in English and I’d try to answer them in some combination of French and Spanish.  Luckily, by the second day and after a good night's sleep, this problem subsided.  I'd planned a few days in Spain before my parents arrived, so I could adjust to the modern world again.  My first impressions were that everything was so pristine and that everything worked.  For some reason, I’d only left Senegal with the name of my hotel and no address and knowing that I’d booked a room in a tiny privately owned establishment, I was concerned that a taxi may not be able to find it.  So, I paid for the airport WiFi to search for the address and then asked a guy at the information desk at the airport if I should call them to get directions.  He said “most taxi drivers have GPS devices—no worries.”  I just stood there a minute laughing out loud at the wonder and absurdity of it all.  When you get in a taxi in Dakar and ask the driver to take you somewhere, the driver will first argue with you about the fee and then finally agree to take you there for some negotiated price. Halfway to your destination he’ll turn around and ask you how to get there and then, inevitably, start yelling at you for not knowing the way.  More than likely, he’ll try to charge you more when he stops to ask directions.  Sometimes, this whole process gets so infuriating that you just get out of the taxi have to start all over again.  So, the news of GPS devices, taxi meters, and “no worries” was like music to my ears.  I grinned the whole way to my hotel.  The other thing that immediately hit me was how clean the streets were.  I mean, you could eat off them they were so clean—I’m not just talking generic American-clean, I’m talking Wisteria Lane clean.  They had recycling bins to sort glass, paper, plastic, and even compost on every corner from inside the airport to the smallest little neighborhood street.  Needless to say, I was very impressed.  The tapas were the next thing to catch my eye—so artfully crafted were these little flavorful tidbits.  The first evening, I sat alone and ordered a slew of them, one at a time, while enjoying some lovely Spanish wine. I could have sat there all night.  It was just divine.


Montblanc 
The next morning, I caught a train to the medieval village of Montblanc, which is situated about 2 hours southwest of Barcelona in the Tarragona region.  The patron saint of this village is St. George because, it is here, they claim ,that he slayed the evil dragon and saved a virgin princess.  That's quite a claim to fame!  Montblanc is also the home of my friends Annaïs and Eric, a Catalonian couple who had stayed with me in Diourbel when they were traveling through Senegal back in January.  They run an organic farm called. Xicòria, which means 'chicory' in Catalan, a plant with many culinary and medicinal properties. Together with another couple, Sylvia and Maximo, they manage a cooperative association, employing a group of local association members and WWOOFing volunteersto help them coordinate educational programs, distribute baskets of produce to shareholders, and manage catering jobs using their homegrown products.  The group was about 10 people when I arrived and they welcomed me into their communal family without the blink of an eye, sharing both their work and their meals with me.  The two nights I was in there, the neighboring village was hosting a street festival, so after we finished work, we piled into a couple of vans and headed over the hills for artisanal beer, music, street food, and festivities. This was how a typical day at Xicòria unfolded:
Shareholder baskets ready for pickup
  • 7am – Head out the door to begin work on the farm (e.g. picking tomatoes or onions)
  • 10am – Communal breakfast set up on tables at the farm: coffee/tea, fresh baked bread, homemade jams, cheese, Iberian ham, tomatoes, and fruit
  • 11am – 1pm – More farm work (e.g. cleaning and bundling onions or assembling shareholder baskets)
  • 1pm – Communal lunch back at the apartment consisting of something yummy like fresh gazpacho, a hearty vegetarian dish, a fresh salad, and grilled veggies drizzled with delicious local olive oil.
  • 2pm – 5pm – Siesta (they really take this seriously in Spain—things shut down completely)
  • 5pm – 8pm – More farm work (e.g. handpicking beetles off cabbage plants)
  • 8pm – 11pm – Village festival in Valls
Each night we fell into bed sore and exhausted.  It reminded me of my Horse & Buggy Produce days but with a lot more breaks for eating and resting.  The second day I was there, Eric, Maximo, and I drove to a friend’s place with a vanload of tomatoes and spent the afternoon washing and slicing to prepare them for drying.  Their friend makes artisanal breads and pastas and constructed a giant ventilated drying machine in his kitchen to dry his pastas.  In trade for vegetables to feed his WWOOFing volunteers, he let us use it for drying tomatoes.  There’s a lot of bartering going on in this community and it was nice to be a part of it for a few days.  My hosts were so welcoming and, with a mixture of languages, we were able to communicate effectively.  Our visit ended way too soon.

Cruising the Mediterranean
Mom & Dad on the docks in Monaco
Mom and Dad arrived in Barcelona on Thursday just as I was getting back from Montblanc.  I literally walked into our hotel from the train station and there they were waiting at the elevator with all of their bags. Although they were tired from an all-night flight, we ran around the city enjoying the colorful atmosphere.  They had been in Barcelona two years ago and were anxious to show me around town.  Unfortunately, we walked a little too fast and furious that afternoon which caused Mom to pull a ligament behind her knee and that slowed her down for the remainder of the trip.  On Friday, we headed down to the port and boarded our cruise ship.  I’d been on a cruise last summer, a Girls Trip for a long weekend in the Bahamas with my mom, sister, aunt, and cousin, so I knew what to expect, but still, somehow, the over stimulating décor still took me by surprise.  There were patterns everywhere—on the floor, on the chairs, on the walls—chrome and bright lights, too.  It was sensory overload at times.  Luckily, our room was big enough that we weren't stepping on each other and it had a window looking out onto the water that made it seem even bigger.  This served as a good escape from the crowded decks above.  It’s a good thing I like hanging out with my parents because we had a lot of “together time” on this trip.
Our 9-day itinerary took us around the western Mediterranean Sea.  We stopped in (or at least near enough to visit):  Monte Carlo, Florence, Naples, Messina (Sicily), and Marseilles.  We also docked a couple hours outside of Rome one day but decided to explore the port city for a couple of hours and then spent the rest of the afternoon having quiet time on the ship. Our stop in Palma de Mallorca was cancelled due to a port-worker strike so we ended up with an extra day in Barcelona, which was just fine with us. Mom, Dad, and I seemed to be in the same mindset about wanting to relax and not run around like crazy people trying to see everything there was to see in a city in just one day.
One of the highlights of the cruise for all of us, but especially me, was the overabundance of food available at all hours of the day and night.  I’d made an early decision to mentally separate myself from the developing world so as not to be riddled with guilt the whole trip.  Instead, I was appreciative of the many choices presented to me each day.  At the morning buffet I could have made-to-order omelets, an assortment of cheeses and cold cuts, freshly made cottage cheese, fruits, and yogurt, bacon and sausage, home-fries, etc.  Lunches were often eaten on shore or were another version of ship’s buffet with a Mongolian Wok, salad bar, deli sandwiches, various hot entrees, and frozen yogurt (which, of course I had daily!)  What I had previously mocked as “trough food” back in the States, was now a sight for sore eyes.  Dinners were a bit more structured and were served in a dining room with a full menu of daily specials.  At times, my mother convinced me to join her in ordering multiple appetizers (because we could) and we had dessert after every meal.  I likely ingested more food in any given day than I do in an entire week back in Senegal, but at least I was eating well-balanced meals and got my fill of protein and vegetables.
Several days into the cruise, my body started feeling rejuvenated again.  I was getting plenty of sleep (in a comfortable bed in an air conditioned room), my diet, although excessive, was healthful, and we were walking a lot at each port of call.  I decided to take my now-kind-of-squishy-body that hadn’t seen any real physical exercise in over a year up to the gym and started working out again.  I can’t tell you how good it felt to get on a Stair Master and make myself sweat.  In Senegal, I sweat all the time because it’s either 110 degrees or if it’s a tad cooler, like it is now, the humidity is through the roof.  Sweating because you live under the African sun and sweating because you’re pumping blood through your veins and making your muscles ache are too entirely different things.  I was so grateful for just a few days the latter.  It gave me hope that someday, my body will get back in shape and I’ll feel good about myself again. I also treated myself to a haircut in Sicily and had my first “good hair day” in over a year.

Back to Barcelona
At the Olympic Museum in Barcelona
Because we ended up in Barcelona a day early, our post-cruise visit there was increased to 5 days.  Even so, there was still so much more of the city we could have explored.  We left our hotel by 10am each day after making ourselves breakfast in our room and didn’t return until 8 or 9pm each evening.  We ate our lunches out, enjoying the neighborhood restaurants offering Daily Menus (an appetizer, an entrée, wine, water, and dessert) for reasonable prices (but, man is the dollar weak over there!!).  We usually picked up things from the local mini-marts to have in our room for dinner when we returned late.  The highlights of our wanderings through Barcelona included the Modernisme architecture that peppers the city (including all things Gaudi and especially Domènech i Montaner’s Music Palace), the plazas and infrastructure built for the ’92 Olympics, the Spanish Village built for the ‘29 International Exhibition, the St. Joseph Market with its colorful produce displays and meat on a stick, the Els Encants flea market, the many impressive art museums, and all of the colorfully decorated balconies.  We shared our visit to Barcelona with thousands of young Catholic revelers who trickled in from all over the world before heading to World Youth Day in Madrid as well as a slew of soccer fans who were there cheering on FC Barcelona as they won the Spanish SuperCup the last night we were there.  We really had such a great time that it was hard to leave, but I did so with a promise to myself that I would be back.  To lighten the mood as we were preparing to leave, Dad looked at me and said (with tongue in cheek), “As many people our age tell their children, ‘We’re going to a better place.’”  ;-) 


Home in Senegal 
Fundraising koozie
Flying back “home” to Dakar felt strange, but this is where I find myself these days.  It was nice not to have the deer-in-the-headlights feeling when I got off the plane and it was fun being able to speak to some of the Senegalese on board in their native tongue. However, I was also welcomed back to Senegal in true Senegalese style.  We landed at 3am in the pouring rain (that same storm eventually headed west and turned into Irene) and I was immediately accosted by no fewer than 8 aggressive taxi drivers who all wanted my business and had all laid claim to my luggage.  There was a lot of yelling and I had to pull my bags back out of people’s hands but, eventually, I negotiated with a driver and within seconds of getting in his car he got pulled over and had to bribe the police before we could be on our way.--oh, Senegal!  With very little sleep, I attended the new volunteer Swear-In Ceremony later that morning, spent the weekend doing laundry, and then had my mid-service medical exams early the following week.  I’m now back at site and am settling back into work and my way of life.  The rainy season has brought dampness to everything and new bugs and smells inhabit my room.  Although this makes daily living  uncomfortable at times, it’s no longer new.  The power and water cuts are just part of life here, as are the ants in my food, the mosquitoes buzzing around my head, and the mold growing on my belongings.  This is my life and my home now, at least for the next year, and I can find comfort in anticipating what will come as I make my way through the last half of my service.  Keep me in your thoughts, as you are in mine.


More Photos
Here are two photo albums from our trip:











1 comment:

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