I am back in Marrakech for work once again, and so far not a ton is new to report. I did bring Mr. Toutmerde along for the ride, so I have a little bit of company. I am happy to note that my friend Bjorn is also in town, and we will be having dinner tomorrow night. The company I am working for put me up at the Bab Hotel, which was really run down and terrible the last time I stayed here, but they told me it was under new management so I agreed to give it a another try (not that I had a choice). I have to admit that several things are quite improved since the last time. The service and attentiveness of the staff is much better than before, and the breakfast is actually fresh this time around, instead of the stale mess they used to serve. The place is still in serious need of a maintenance budget, but overall things are ok and the design of the place quite good. As for the work itself, it is as I expected it would be (when you work in Morocco, you don’t hold your breath for things to go off without a hitch), but the people are nice as always and the weather has been 80 and sunny, which is a wonderful change from NYC.
…but not in the good way. I mean that I have rarely seen such a massive line at the security checkpoint. And even though there were at least 15 scan lines, the hordes of people snaking their slow way through to get to these lines was insane. Is there some holiday happening that I am unaware of? Fortunately, I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and I am now ensconced in the SWISS lounge (why on earth did they change their name from Swissair, anyway?). Despite not having the appropriate pass, they let me in anyway, and I am now enjoying free water, brownies, brisket, cantaloupe, and Wi-Fi, not necessarily in that order. My flight boards in a little less than an hour. I will then have about a 3 hour layover before catching my flight to Marrakech. Maybe by the time I return to NYC, Spring will actually be a thing.
As fate would have it, I am leaving tomorrow for three weeks out of the country. Again. I know what you are thinking, but this is (mostly) a work trip. First up is Marrakech for a week, then Switzerland for a little Easter weekend road-trip with my friend Jonathan, then off to see dear Olaf in Hamburg for more work (and a little fun) with him. On the plus side, I will be blogging again for the fans out there (all 5 of you).
It has been a nice run, hasn’t it? At 4.5 months, this has been the second longest trip of my life (the first being the 2+ years’ travel adventure that started this blog back in 2006). This trip was never destined to be the mid-life crisis shakeup that earlier trip turned out to be. This trip was about taking an opportunity that presented itself, rather than letting it slip by. That said, it is impossible (I hope, anyway) to travel so much without it changing you, without it leaving a mark. The whole reason for travel is to be exposed to new cultures, new climates, new experiences, new ways of thinking, and of course new foods. To learn from what is beyond the border of your experience, and then integrate those lessons into your world view. Travel pushes you to live in the present moment like no other experience I know, because you can’t rely on routine and habit to navigate it, you need to really pay attention.
The past months have taken me to a wonderfully diverse set of places away from my home in New York. Colombia, California, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, India, Turkey, and finally Portugal. I have seen amazing places, met wonderful people, tasted amazing food. I have figured out logistics in a variety of foreign places and languages, some very easy and some maddening difficult. I have spent time with friends old and new. And although I knew this trip would make my finances take a hit, it was totally worth it. Some people might feel exhausted after such a long journey, but I feel invigorated. While I am definitely looking forward to getting home, it is less about a particular place and set of familiar things than it is about the people I know and love there, people I have missed.
I was expecting to miss most of the winter in New York, and I suppose I have, but it is bone-chillingly cold there at the moment and I guess I will still have about a month or so of winter to experience. Just as well, I will be snug in my apartment, chipping away at the large amount of work I have let pile up over the past few months. I am currently at the Lisbon airport, awaiting my flight to New York. See you all on the other side of the Atlantic.
I have to admit to liking Porto better today, for a few reasons, but mostly having to do with much better weather. This morning Arnaud and I crossed the river for a wine tour and tasting, then walked around, took the teleférico up the hill for some stunning views, and then made our way back across the totally insane Luís I bridge and back to our flat. I say the bridge was insane because there is a very low guard rail for a very high crossing. I can’t believe there aren’t a huge number of suicides off this bridge, it is crazy vertigo-inducing, but also affords truly spectacular views. We had a lunch of Bacalhau (what else) and then I bid a fond farewell to Arnaud who left to catch his flight back to London. Finally this evening, on the advice of a local, I sampled a local culinary horror called the Francesinha, sort of a distant inbred cousin of the already classy Monte Cristo. I am feeling a bit ill but proud for having taken up the challenge.
I will go to bed early tonight because I have to be up to catch my taxi to the airport at the ungodly hour of 4:15am. I am finally heading home after 4 and a half months on the road.
Arnaud and I have been walking around Porto all day, most of which it wasn’t raining too bad, but right now it is kinda pouring out. Arnaud still wanted to walk around, so I said have fun, see you back at the apartment. While we have yet to do a tour of wine shops here (that is tomorrow), we have walked all over town, have seen a lot of buildings inside and out, and even went to the very interesting modern art museum designed by Alvaro Siza. So far here are my impressions of Porto:
– It is a beautiful city, but has nothing on Lisbon.
– It is quite run down in the center, historic city. Many buildings are crumbling or abandoned.
– Unlike most cities in Europe, the wealthy seem to live more in the suburbs, which seem to be in better physical shape than the old city, but lacking much of the charm.
– The food here has been quite a bit more expensive than in Lisbon, but perhaps because we are going to more touristy or better places. Come to think of it, maybe the cost also explains why the quality has been better than Lisbon for most meals.
I will reserve judgement until after tomorrow’s wine tasting and other-side-of-the-river viewing, but so far I think if you came to Portugal and could only choose one city to visit, Lisbon would win hands down over Porto.
Since I was in Portugal, I couldn’t really leave the country without seeing Oporto, so here I am. The trip is made all the nicer by my old friend Arnaud agreeing to meet me here for a few days. I arrived about an hour before him at the airport and awaited him, then we hopped in a cab which took us through the rain to our stunningly beautiful apartment overlooking the Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique in the very center of the city. Even though it was raining almost the entire day, we walked all over the place, had a really yummy lunch and got a feel for the city. So far, I can tell you that (despite the rain) Oporto is a charming little city. Similar to Lisbon but a bit more run down, and there are wine shops all over the city, which we plan to avail ourselves of in earnest starting tomorrow.
My last day in Lisbon was spent walking around, enjoying the beautiful weather. In particular, I took in the Castle of Sao Jorge at the top of Alfama. This multi layered, historic site really has the best views over the city, and is a fascinating tour through successive centuries (millennia, really) of occupation, culture, and developments in the life of Lisbon.
Tomorrow morning I head to Porto (Oporto), where I will meet up with my old friend Arnaud who is flying down from London. The forecast calls for rain, but so did the forecast for my time in Lisbon, and it turned out to be mostly sunshine, so fingers crossed.
English - Unlike many other countries in Europe (France, Spain, and Germany to name but three), People in Lisbon seem to have a very good grasp of English and don’t mind speaking it. At first I was trying to speak Spanish, because I figured that way everyone (including me) would be having to speak a non-native language and it would be closer to Portuguese and so easier for them. But my new friend Rui told me last night that despite my good intentions it is actually considered condescending and rude (as if not knowing that Portuguese and not Spanish is the native tongue), so I have stopped. One interesting possibility for why they speak so well is that their TV programs (if they are originally in English) are not dubbed (as they are in many countries), but subtitled. So this helps them have quite a better command of English.
French Tourists - And speaking of language groups, I can’t get over how many damn French tourists there are here, far outstripping any other group. They are everywhere.
Drugs – I can’t get over how many times I have been stopped on the street here by people trying to sell me drugs, and not just the soft stuff either.
Cobble stones of death – While they are beautiful to look at and add a lot of charm to the place, the cobblestones that cover every surface can be a little hard on the feet. And heaven help you if it rains in Lisbon, the whole place becomes a slippery mess.
Cheap – I can’t get over how inexpensive everything is compared to every other place in Europe I have been. Breakfast usually runs about 2 dollars, for example.
Land of canes – Much like in neighboring Spain, there are a surprising number of people using canes and crutches to get around.
Pubs – Likewise, there are a surprising number of pubs around (the English and Irish kind).
Shouting in the streets – Perhaps it is just my neighborhood of Alfama, but there are an inordinate amount of people just hanging out in the streets and yelling a lot. A LOT.
In a strange coincidence, one of my clients from LA (Jason) and his partner (Steve), just happened to be in Lisbon at the same time as me. So last night we went to a Fado club to listen to some great music, and today we all went to Belem to see the tower and the monastery. Then we had a brief walkaround and coffee in Alfama before parting ways.
I love it when you run into people you know in unexpected places.