BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Saturday, December 31, 2011

At the cross roads of the sea

--Tangers, Tangiers... off the beaten path. French mumbled in disjointed bodily cues. Tourists lilting in their obvious incongruity. We swam like novices caught in the wave of people, sand and olive oil. Staring away and within at the same time.--

Finding travel advice about Tangers online was surprisingly difficult. You would imagine given the millions of tourists caught up in the Costa del Sol beach culture that there would be a few who would choose to venture on to something a bit more rich in culture... but from the sea of information on the web, I could not find out what I really needed to know.  This blog stands to correct that lack of information.


i) Algeciras
There are a number of port options, and a number of companies to choose from.  We opted to go from Algeciras because it was one port that guaranteed departures everyday.  Our way out was windy; very, very windy, so none of the fast ferries were running.  I suspect that such winds are a common occurrence, as the coastal highway is dotted with windsocks, and there is a MASSIVE wind farm along the coast between Algeciras and Tarifa.

Anyways... you could look for ferry companies and schedules on line... or you could go to one of the many road side booths advertising tickets to Tangers.... but that would be an absolute folly. Even on a good day the ferries don't keep a schedule.  On a windy day... well... all in good time.

At the ferry terminal there will be people hassling you to buy tickets from them.  Ignore them and march right to the end of the terminal where the foot passengers ticket sales are.  There you will find a current schedule (with more than half the sailings cancelled on our windy day departure) for all of the companies.  There are at least half a dozen companies to choose from.  Take the sailing that is the most convenient for you and buy your tickets directly from that company.

On a windy day, the authorities (not sure who... but we only gathered this information by overhearing other people's conversation) only allow so many boats to be crossing to Tangers at a time.  This meant that our boat had to wait 1.5 hours to depart.  We were a bit put out by that... however, we later met someone else who had to wait 5 hours to depart... so perhaps we were pretty lucky after all!

All the boats from Algeciras dock at Tangers Med.  Which means that the boat trip takes 1.5 hours... and you dock a 45 min drive from Tangers. The ferry companies offer a free bus trip on a fancy coach bus to Tangers... but getting on the bus is a massive free-for-all push, as there definitely was fewer seats then passangers. 

So my summary of that experience was: cost €20 each, total travel time >2 hours, some wind, reliable departures.
 ii) Tarifa
The ferry from Tarifa runs right to Tangers city port... literally just a 15 min walk from the Medina. It's a fast little catamaran boat that only takes 30 min to cross.  We decided to do this on our return trip.  It was a much nicer voyage... and would come highly recommended.  The ferry company even offers a free bus ride to Algeciras on the other side!  The only draw back was that it cost €36 each and it won't run on a windy day.  Even on our calm day of travel BOTH Brad and I were a bit nauseated by the tossing of the small ship.  Clearly the mouth of the Mediterranean is a turbulent place!

There are restaurants... but these only open for dinner starting at 8pm. Tangers is 1 hour behind Spain which means that it was more like a 9pm start. Proper restaurants will serve alcohol, and the food prices aren't too bad when compared to Europe (€7 a plate).

However, there are LOADS of tea shops serving food, plus many more fast food options. These won't sell alcohol (to be honest, I didn't actually see any confirmatory evidence of drinking ANYWHERE in Tangers... though there did appear to be beach side bars, these weren't ever open... perhaps it was just too wintery?).  Informal eating is much cheaper (€3 a plate) and was very tasty.  We ate veggie tangine, veggie couscous, Moroccan salad, and Arabic salad.  All yummy and no tummy issues at all. 

(On that note, I never did find out if the drinking water was good... so we stuck with bottled water, even though the locals seemed to be availing of the free tap water.)

Street food seemed popular, but we only ate a few things from the street as they seemed to involve a lot of seafood or sugar. Dairy seemed to be all goat... but there wasn't really much dairy around. 

The only real advice we would offer is:
i) Avoid the street cafes around the Grand Socco as they are 100% tourist hustlers.
ii) Tipping 10% is the norm.
iii) The mint tea you see everyone drinking is way too sweet.

We stayed in a Riad. There are hotels and they run at normal Euro pricing. There are pensions everywhere, which I suspect are cheap but not terribly well maintained. A Riad is a traditional hotel. By nature they are in older buildings and damp. The reason for the damp is that they are comprised of rooms situated off of an inner courtyard. The door of your room opens into the courtyard.

Our experience felt very traditional. The only heating for the building was the fire built in the courtyard every night. Security on our doors and windows were minimal at best, but that added to the authenticity as they were definitely historical. The outside door into the Riad was beefy, and the Riad (typically) only had 4-5 rooms, leading to a more private atmosphere.

Truthfully there isn't much to see in Tangers. A few museums and parks make up the lot. You could spend a lot of time lost in the ancient Medina, haggling with the vendors over their wares.  There's a few other markets, including a food market that surely wouldn't have passed any Western food safety regulations. The local men seem to spend all their time drinking tea and coffee in one of the many salons. I felt a bit uncomfortable joining in that part of the culture... given that I'm generally not brave enough to walk into a room full of men (who seem to like to stare). The Petit Socco has a few salons that are more tourist friendly and not too badly priced (€0.90 for a coffee).

General advice:
i) Barter. But don't expect that much from it.... it's not like Mexico or Turkey. Basically check around for prices before deciding on the value of the item. Some people will try and rip you off, but most won't.

ii) Ignore the hustlers, unless you actually do need help. The hustlers basically imagine themselves to be "guides", working for tips.  A tip of a Euro would be appropriate for having someone help you find  your hotel.  And given the general lack of appropriate maps, and the thousands of short streets, you may need to seek such help a few times.  If you look lost they will descend upon you, like flies on honey.  However, simply ignore them completely or provide a strong "NO" if they start to follow you. Our first night there I was quite bothered by them; however, by the second day it was easy to avoid feeling harassed.

iii) Dress conservatively. Most of the women cover their hair and wear more traditional clothes. Many of the men wear long robes (I particularly liked the pointed hoods of the mountain Berbers). All the men stared at me, even though I was wearing jeans and a sweater. On the same token, most men would barely address me in restaurant and shops.  It made things more difficult as my French is much better than Brad's.

iv) Don't assume everyone speaks French.  It's polite to ask.  Many people spoke as much English as they did French.  However, I would say that mostly everyone understood some French... though I will admit that their accent and my accent did make some things difficult to negotiate.

v) Don't use Euro's... it's always cheaper to pay with Dirhams.  We used less than €150 (1650 Dirhams) for our trip... (excluding lodgings) and we did a fair amount of shopping with that! The local handmade goods seem to be leather, metal working, pottery and clothes. In fact our Riad seemed to be located in the clothing district, with everyone winding thread and sewing away late into the evening.

vi) There is no siesta, but some shops do close for the call to prayer.

vii) Canadians and Americans (and I assume Europeans) don't need visas. There is paperwork to fill out at the border, but no fees to be paid. Also you don't need vaccinations or anything like that... so it's relatively easy to pop over for a short trip!

Phew!  That about sums it up!  We had a fab time... and only had to cuddle with Nikolai for 4 hours to make up for his feelings of abandonment.  (He had a great time with Grammy, Grampy and Auntie Claire... but felt a wee bit needy when we arrived back!)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Feliz Navidad!

Truthfully Christmas was a bit lackluster. Nikolai and Grammy have both been suffering from a flu/cold for a few days, and Nikolai woke up fevered and listless. He didn't care about presents or Santa or the crumbs of cookies or anything that involved him moving from his prone position on the couch.

As the only child in the house we depended on his enthusiasm to bring about the Christmas cheer!  So I resulted to drugs to bring down his fever... just one dose to get him through the gift opening.  It worked! We had about 4 hours of energy before he crashed again.

Anyways, today Brad and I are off on an adventure. The kind of adventure where it's safest to leave our laptop and toddler behind. We don't feel too guilty about leaving a sick toddler because Nikolai woke up full of excitement for the Christmas toys he'd received yesterday. Hopefully that was the end of his flu!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

--Forward: I (Emillie) was a bit busy at making Christmas decorations out of paper, so I put Brad to the task of writing the first blog entry from our vacation destination.  And the punchline... is Spain! Malaga's Costa del Sol muchos gracias. So this blog is truly a joint effort. --

We now feel completely justified in having fled the Irish winter to enjoy Christmas in Southern Spain. Upon arriving, our local guide mentioned to us that Benalmadena is a bit of a mecca for Irish vacationers, and sure enough as soon as we entered the city limits we spied five Irish pubs. (There are also two Dunnes stores on the coast!)

As for our vacation, we're almost following a standard script here, eating the citrus fresh from the front yard and swimming in the backyard pool. Nikolai was quite excited by the prospect of picking some fruit and dipping his toes into the warm water, but by far his favorite activity involves knocking balls around the billiard table.

Anyways, we're making the most of our time in the sun, and plan on visiting some local highlights. We've already spent an afternoon in Ronda and Malaga, and greatly enjoyed hiking around the old towns of both ciudads.

The picture above features "the Queen" picking an orange from the grove attached to our villa. Below is Nikolai and Grammy on the "honey beach".

Playing pool by the pool. The weather is balmy in the sun!

Posing on the stairs of the Malaga castle. The weather can also be quite chilly in the wind!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Noillaig shonas duit

Back in September we bought and paid for a destination Christmas vacation with my parents and my sister.  At the time we had no idea that we would be moving back to Canada only a short two weeks after returning from our trip.  Regardless, the University is closed for two weeks over the holidays, so we might as well escape from this chilly place.

Since we leave on Saturday, my next blog will be coming from that warmer place.  Today, I'm going to touch on Christmas in Ireland.  Though the country is officially secular, 87% of the population would self-identify as Catholic.  Some of these people fully embrace their Catholicisms. They attend mass every day, eat fish on Fridays, and avoid yoga as it could involve practicing another religion.  The second tier is comprised of people who attend mass on Sundays.  By far the majority of people probably only attend mass for funerals, weddings and baptisms.

The Catholic Church also owns at least half of everything. Obviously they own the churches... but they also own 3 of the 4 elementary schools in Maynooth, they own the Children's Hospital that Nikolai went to in Dublin, they own the grounds of NUIM and rents them to the University (debates between the University and the Priests over new buildings and campus life provides for much of the gossip around town).  So Christmas in Ireland is much more CHRISTmass than it is in Canada.

Evidence of the nativity abound.  The preschools teach songs about baby Jesus. The shops sell costumes for the nativity plays that will be performed by every class in Maynooth (I was tempted to buy Nikolai a Star costume... but might leave it till the sales).

We went to Dublin to see the lights and windows a few weekends ago.  Dublin lights up in a way that is beyond anything I've seen in Canada.  We walked up Henry Street as the sun was setting, so our better photos are all from the Grafton area. Above is a picture of the advent calendar that took me forEVER to sew.  Below is Grafton.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A novel

Anyone with some math skills or basic time management techniques would quickly come to realise that I have an awful lot of free time. Nikolai goes to preschool 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. That's 15 hours a week of free time!  Yet I am far too busy to blog...

So what is it that I've been doing?  And that has been my secret thus far... least until today!  After completing my second draft this morning I'm ready to share...
...I have been writing a novel.

I've always loved writing.  Even as a 6 year old dyslexic kid, I was writing stories full of creatively spelled words. I loved writing my Master's thesis. I loved doing technical writing. So when I was granted a huge chunk of free time, I decided to give it a go.  And here I am with approximately 60,000 words, divided up into 15 chapters. It's the usual stuff about relationships and finding yourself, etc. Much to Brad's chagrin it's not sci-fi or fantasy.

I know that I have a few more revisions to work on, but I suspect that they will go much more quickly than the initial ones. Which is a good thing, because BC doesn't offer a free preschool scheme, so I will be back to full time parenting status for another year and a half!  However, it is more likely that we'll move on to the working/daycare scenario. Either way my novel will be shelved.  This leads to the crux of my blog today... what do I do next?

This is not a plea for readers. I have no intention of distributing electronic copies for critique. The Internet is very clear on that... copyright and security is important. What's more, the few people I have told about my novel writing, generally respond with "am I in it? Did you write about me?" The answer to that question is simply, "no", I wrote about me! I am every character in the book, because how else could I possibly write about someone's experience?  Regardless, I've decided I don't need all my friends and family "reading" into the hidden meanings of my novel unless I'm going to at least be paid a royalty!

Back to my current pondering... does anyone have any advice?  From my Internet searching, it's clear that I need to get a literary agent... but how does one go about getting an agent?  I assure you, I haven't written a glorified blog entry. It's a full story, start to finish. It has dialogue and descriptions and everything you need in a proper story. I was thinking of posting an excerpt... but I'm still fuzzy on the copyright issue.

Below is the writer, walking around the chilly streets of Dublin... for a few more weeks anyways!