Monday, March 22, 2010

Three Countries in Two Days

Last weekend (sorry, I'm really bad at finding time to write long posts), I took a bus down to Marbella, a beach resort town on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía, to see my aunt and uncle, who were on vacation and graciously invited me to stay for a few days with them.  Due to my stinginess and late planning, I decided to take a bus down.  This was, in many ways, a really good idea.  The trip by bus is about 7 hours, which is a good night's sleep.  It would also drop me off in Marbella, rather than the provincial capital of Málaga, where there was an airport and train station.  Furthermore, it was about a quarter the cost of any other option and could be done at the last minute.  The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful, except for when an angry man demanded that I give him back his seat at 3:00 AM when we stopped at a rest stop, only to realize that he was on the bus going in the other direction.

I got into Marbella, a small city on the sea, around 6:00 AM.  Though my uncle had told me to take a taxi, google maps suggested the walk was not that difficult or long.  After wandering a little, I arrived at what should have been my destination according to the map.  It was a crowded residential area near a main road.  There was absolutely no evidence of any sort of hotel, nor would it have been at all an attractive location to put one.  I should have realized this from the beginning.  Firstly, the address was in an urbanzación, which is sort of like a gated suburb without a local government, while the map indicated I should be in the middle of the city.  It was also not by the water, which was probably a bad sign for a beach resort.  Eventually, I called the hotel and explained to them where I was.  They told me that the hotel was not, in fact, in Marbella and that I really needed to take a taxi.  I got a taxi number from a nearby bread story and called a cab.  The hotel was, in fact, nowhere near the city, but rather 10 minutes down the highway.  Still, I got there not long after the sunrise, and with the help of coffee and Aquarius, a sports drink and common hangover remedy, I was ready to function like a normal person.

The hotel was a welcome respite from Spanish life, conveniently located in Spain.  The Costa del Sol is a huge foreign tourist spot (it actually was the cause of Spain's economic development), so it is not surprising that everyone in the hotel spoke English.  Having been used to speaking Spanish unless someone is a) an American or b) given a really convincing reason why we should use English, it was strange to switch back to it.  The hotel also boasted an American style restaurant and many other Americans (including my aunt and uncle, who do speak English awfully well).  I had just had a week in which I felt pretty anti-Spanish (it happens to everyone from time to time), so for me, this was doubly a vacation.

That day, we took a trip down to Gibraltar.  For some reason, this has long been on my list of places to visit.  I think I learned the Gibraltar anthem in middle school, which I bet even most people there don't know, and can still get through at least two verses.  It's basically a British military stronghold on a mountain island off the coast of Spain.  The Spanish have been veritably pissed about this for centuries, even though the hold virtually identical territories off the coast of Morocco.  It turned out the place was even more interesting than I expected.  For one, Gibraltar is really small.  Most of the island is too steep to live on, so despite "reclaiming" some land from the sea, the whole city is walkable.  The economy is dominated by tourism.  For these reasons, taxis are used almost exclusively to bring people up the steep switchbacks of the mountain on tours.  There are a good many views, as well as some caves, fortresses, and many monkeys.  Technically apes, the monkeys have adapted well to their lives as tourist attractions.  While the national park feeds them a healthy diet, they live almost entirely on the sandwiches and pastries that tourists feed them for kicks.  They're actually really entertaining, until you get in the way of them and their food.  Then they're terrifying.

The other interesting part of Gibraltar is the people.  They're a bit hard to pick out from the tourists, but they seem to live an interesting collective life.  For one, they're extremely proud to be British.  Union Jacks are everywhere, though not as common as local flags.  They don't really speak English, though, but rather Llanito, a mix of Andaluz Spanish (which is pretty weird itself) and English.  It's sort of like Spanglish on steroids.  Best I can tell, people switch languages multiple times in a single sentence, often mispronouncing words so as to harmonize the phonology.  I couldn't really understand it, despite speaking both languages.  Furthermore, there are a ton of Jews there.  Wikipedia says it's only 2%, but they seem to be a pretty significant presence.  I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised being that I've met Jews from Gibraltar in Madrid, but to be fair, there are 584 Jews in Gibraltar and only 3,500 in all of Madrid.  Everywhere you went in Gibraltar, there was someone in a kippah.  Outside of the synagogue, I don't think I've seen a single one my whole time in Madrid.

The next day, we took the ferry over to Tangier.  The trip was enjoyable, though more or less what I expected.  We got a pretty good taste of the city, walked around one of the older neighborhoods, went to the market, and ate some local food, among other things.  While it was fun for the day, it reminded me of why I chose to study in a developed country.  Economic differences between countries mean it's really difficult to be anything other than a tourist in a country like Morocco, and least as it seems to me.  Even when I chat with Mohammad, my local Moroccan store owner (who recently sold me a leather belt and tie for 8 euros), the economic statuses of our home countries are really salient.  We have conversations, but he always brings up that I'm from a rich country.  It creates a pretty serious barrier between us, even though we're friends (or so I believe, since we always talk for at least a half hour when I stop by).

On my third and last day in the area, we went to Ronda, a mountainous town (the road to get there was carsickness waiting to happen) north of Marbella.  I had never heard of Ronda before, but it is apparently a popular destination.  Pilar even has paintings of it hanging in the kitchen.  It's a "white town" meaning that almost every building is covered in white stucco.  I had to wonder whether there was zoning behind it, or whether it was just tradition.  The city contains a very impressive bridge over a wide gorge, as well as the first bullfighting stadium.  One of the more surprising things about our trip to Ronda was dealing with the language.  Andalusian Spanish has a reputation for being weird.  For instance, they either lisp everything or nothing, while in the rest of Spain, we lisp c's and z's (plus some d's for people with really strong "Madrith" accents).  I had to admit that I had a really hard time understanding them.  For instance, for "goodbye", they didn't say "hasta luego", like in Madrid (actually really funny, since you say it even to people you have no reason or intention to ever see again), but some set of sounds that seemed uniform, but didn't remind me of any word(s) I knew.  Also, while I had noticed I've been picking up a bit of a Madrid accent (for instance, dropping d's towards the end of words - it's really ugly, though I haven't gotten to lisping them yet), I was hyper-aware of it when talking to people there.  I know someone must have been asking themselves why an American who doesn't even speak good Spanish would also be pretending to be from Madrid.

For dinner that night we went back to Marbella, the beachside town that I had wandered around hopelessly pre-sunrise a few days earlier.  It turns out it's a much nicer place when you're not searching for imaginary buildings and when you stay in the parts nice enough for actual hotels.  At midnight, I got on another bus and headed back, waking up to the arrival at the beautiful (sarcasm intended) Estación del Sur.  I realize that even though I regularly feel the need for a break I'm always glad to get back to Madrid.  Although a friend described is as the bland least common denominator (my words, actually, but I promise mine are better) of all the really interesting and diverse cultures of Spain, I'm beginning to actually feel like I live in Madrid.  While fried calamari sandwiches may not have the culinary nuance of Andaluz or Valencian cuisine, or, it turns out, taste good, it's still comforting to see them advertised in the window of every bar again.  If it took a pleasant vacation to realize that, I think that's something I can live with.

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