A Tale of Two Scams: In Three Parts

Gastronomic Negotiation

"Sir, you walk past me every night. Please give me a chance! I will give you an appetizer and free baklava for desert!" Really? I honestly don't remember you. I've only walked down this road one other time. "Very Sorry" I say, "I've already got a dinner reservation back at Ocean's 7. " "you will like it!" Says one of the patrons at the current establishment. Another ten steps down the road and we are implored to "Look at my menu." A bit further on we are told "Sir, I have your table ready for you!" The idea that you can bargain for your supper seems so counter productive to me that I just cannot fathom it. Hey, lets see how little I can pay for something I'm about to ingest into my body. The incentives here are all in the wrong direction!

I can only imagine the conversations in the kitchen:

Waiter: One chicken and rice for the cheapskates at table five!

Chef: Oh great, now we know what to do with the gizzard and thigh meat that has been sitting on the floor all night!

No Thank You I will be more than happy to pay a price that puts the chef on my side.

Waiter: Chef the generous folks are back at table seven.

Chef: Great, tell them to order the veal, I've got two extra tender pieces I've been saving for my best customers. Oh, and bring up that 2011 Rombaur Chardonnay from the cellar, I know they will love that.

I think we can all agree on which chef we would rather have cooking our food.

This whole hawking the restaurant thing has been an ongoing saga since we arrived in Istanbul, and we even experienced it in London a couple of weekends ago. I don't remember it being the case in Vietnam or Morocco, and certainly not in Malta, but maybe this has more to do with the onset of high touring season than our location. Now, this is not really a scam (although we have heard stories of the old bait and switch ) so much as an intro to the two things that happened to us today.

Cruising on a Reputable Ferry

Our plan for the day was to take the Ferry up the Bosphorus river to the mouth of the Black Sea. You get to see a lot of Istanbul along the way, then the ferry stops for a couple of hours so you can have lunch or do a little hiking and then comes back. As usual Jane had it all planned out, including a discount for using our museum passes. When we arrived at the waterfront we were immediately accosted by the usual crowd of tour people trying to sell us one of their packages. -- two hour boat trips, three hour boat trips, six hour boat trips... "No, we are going on the ferry!" we would say. "But I can leave sooner. I will take you to the same place, wait for two hours and bring you back. My boat holds 80, it will be much nicer than the ferry and 800 people!" Hmmm, we were intrigued, and a bit horrified that we were even considering this option. But after a bit of negotiation, and multiple confirmations about our destination and pricing we decided to risk it. The captain even threw in a 50% discount on coffee at the nearby snack shack. Run by a relative no doubt. "Just wait here" we were told. So we waited and watched them try to work their magic on other passersby.

After a while, one of them came up to talk to us.

We cannot take you. I cannot do the trip for just your group. It will be better if you take the ferry, down there. There are not enough passengers today, because the bike race is keeping them all away from here. I am sorry.

It was true, there was a big Tour of Istanbul bike race in town, and the weather was a bit dreary, so the pier was sparsely populated. Which also meant that the ferry was not nearly as crowded as Jane's research had led us to believe it would be. So, we carried on with our original plan, got our tickets to the ferry and were on our way.

The cruise was interesting, we got to see some castles, and some amazing real estate. And even a container ship that originated from Valletta! We just can't get away from Malta now. Here is a little slideshow of some photos on the tour.


The shoeshine redemption

After the cruise we had to make our way back into the spice market to buy some of the delicious candy covered "fistik." That is peanuts covered in a syrup and rolled in sesame seeds. We discovered these our last day in Morocco, and were only too happy to find out you can buy them in Turkey as well. Some of the group wanted to hit the archeological museum while others just wanted to wander the spice market some more. So we turned them loose and decided to wander our own way back to the hotel.

As we were passing up one street that was very lightly travelled a shoe shine man dropped his brush in front of us. So, we picked it up and called out to him to give it back. He thanked us and we were on our way. Suddenly he called back to us. He sat down and and said "please," with a look that said let me repay your kindness. We thought how nice, one good turn deserves another. But I had on my hiking shoes, which are not "shineable" and so he offered to shine Jane's black shoes which were definitely in need of some love after all of our travels. He finished up Jane's shoes and then insisted on brushing mine with a toothbrush and some water -- which certainly did not hurt. About this time both Jane and I reached into our pockets for a few coins to tip the guy.

Imagine my surprise when Jane offered him several one lyra coins and he said "no, paper" What? He doesn't want coins he wants paper money? Slowly it dawned on me that we had been played this whole time. He now wanted to be paid the full amount for two shoe shines, which took less than a couple of minutes. I added my coins to Jane's and dumped them in his hand and we turned and walked away. I guess we both got half price shoe shines, and nine turkish lyra (about $3). Lesson learned, and a small price to pay for a story to add to the blog.

Istanbul: Capital of two Empires

"You want a fish!?" Said the night watchman with confusion. "No," I said, "do you have a cork-screw?" doing my best imitation of screwing in a corkscrew and then pulling out the cork. "Ah! One moment" And off he went, out the front door and into the restaurant across the street. Moments later he was back with an excellent corkscrew, which I used to uncork the bottle we had purchased around the corner and then returned to him. After I got back to the room I could not contain my laughter any more. A fish? The fact that he borrowed the corkscrew from the restaurant, which was the very thing that Jane had suggested in the first place. An idea that I soundly rejected. Hi, I know that we didn't eat dinner here or buy anything from you but would you mind terribly if I borrowed your corkscrew to open the bottle of wine I bought at the market around the corner? I just can't imagine myself saything those words.

A glass of wine was a great way to cap off what had been a very full day of touring around the old city of Istanbul. Once known as Constantinople, it was the head of the Christian world. Then under the Ottoman empire it became a Muslim country. Today, Turkey is largly muslim, but the government is a secular government. We began with a tour of Topkapi Palace were we visited the treasury, and the Harem and saw the Sultans private rooms. We also visited the tulip gardens. It is an interesting fact that although Holland is usually celebrated for its tulips, the Dutch took them and transplated the tulips from Istanbul originally!

Tulips

In the hall of mirrors, I told students about recursion.

They did not care.

From the Palace we moved on to the Blue Mosque, one of the icons of Istanbul. There was a really long line to get in, but we made the best of it, while Ben ran into someone with nearly the same last name as him in line. He turned out to be from wisconsin, and has relatives in Decorah. Small world. The line was rather entertaining, as standing in line appears to be optional for many tourists here in Istanbul. However all of the guides team up to try and send the line jumpers to the end. It is interesting to see the reaction of the people who clearly know they are being jerks and getting called out for it. Once we got inside it was amazing. It is so hard to describe this space, like St. Peters in Rome it is just so large that you cannot hope to capture the scale of the whole thing.

Across a very large square from the Blue Mosque is Hagia Sofia. This was once the largest Christian church in the world. Of course it was later supplanted by St. Peters and others. The really interesting thing about Hagia Sofia is that it was converted to a Mosque. Check out the apse of the church in this next picture. Notice that the alcove is not centered. This is because even though the church was sited east to west, the axis was just eleven degrees off of the line to Mecca. Because Muslims do not allow for images in their mosques all of the mosaics were covered in whitewash and then painted over in more typical muslim designs. Except for the Seraphim. Look at the two images below:

Notice that the only difference here is that the face was painted over with a symetric diamond shape. Some of the mosaics that they have begun to uncover and restore are really stunning.

Hagia Sophia

Finally, we visited the cistern under the basilica. You may remember this from James Bond, "To Russia with Love." It is just this giant underground place that used to provide water to the city. But now, it is just stunning:

The Cistern

After all of that we headed back to the hotel for a short rest before we took the students out for a group dinner. We were all plenty exhausted after such an interesting day. Tomorrow, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and Taksim square.

Biking in London

Think you have done it all in London? The museums, the London Eye, the changing of the guard, the Thames, the list goes on. Here is a great way to spend a day, for almost no money. Rent a Barclay's bike and head for the Regents Canal. This is exactly what we did and it was a fantastic way to enjoy London away from the traffic and the museums.

You'll discover a whole different culture and way of life when you bike along the canal. There are hundreds of narrow small barges that people live on or work the canal on. We saw all walks of life that appeared to be barge owners, from the very wealthy to those who reminded us of the people in Veitnam who lived on their boats with no heat or running water.

The path is fairly narrow, so you have to be alert or you could get wet, which would definitely spoil an otherwise good day. Also you need to remember that pedestrians have the right of way, so just be polite, use your little bell, and don't go too fast! We didn't have any trouble, and we enjoyed all of the scenery and the side trips that are available from the canal path.

On day one we started from Angel, and followed the path toward the London Docklands. It was warm and scenic, and gave us a great taste of barge life on the canal. We wandered around the (free) docklands museum, hoping to learn a bit more about the canals, but were disappointed. The docklands museum is actually a very interesting history of London, so that was not disappointing, just that the museum didn't have anything to say about the canal.

On day two we went the other way, and ended up having lunch in the rather bohemian Camden Market area. We also took a side trip around the zoo and the royal gardens to see some incredible villas that have been built right along the canal.


I love London. It is probably my favorite big city in the world. I think I have visited at least six times. So I have done the museums and most of the good tourist attractions. My top five would be:

  • The Transportation Museum in Covent Garden
  • The science museum in Kensington
  • The Imperial War Museum
  • Our visit to Parliament
  • Westminster Abbey

This was a really great alternative way to spend the better part of two days enjoying London culture from the perspective of a cyclist.

As a bonus part of this post, I do have to admit that I had never done the London Eye until this visit. It was definitely a fun way to get a view of the city. Jane and I both did a little bit of experimenting with time lapse videos on our iPhones. I wish I had brought my tripod so I could have captured the entire circle.


FA Cup Semifinal

The first words I read as my phone synced up email in the passport control line at Luton were "still no tickets." The message went on to explain that the tickets were still supposed to be delivered by eleven PM by someone named Jamie who is running behind schedule.

Wembley Stadium

Getting tickets to the FA cup game is no easy trick. All of the tickets allocated to both clubs (Arsenal and Reading) were sold out to season ticket holders well in advance, so visitors like us are left trying to buy tickets online from third parties at crazy high prices. Yes, its crazy to pay over $300 to go to a soccer match. Yes, I paid it willingly! We did some research, so we think this is a reputable source of tickets but you have to put a certain amount of trust in strangers in order to get your tickets.

After the train ride into Farringdon station we walk over to the apartment we had rented through AirBnB, another exercise in trusting strangers, and are rewarded with exactly the fantastic two bedroom apartment we were promised. The owner met us at the door and showed us around. He had purchased us some breakfast items, and some fruit, and a nice bottle of wine. The apartment is on a Kings Mews street, which is nice and quiet so no problem with street noise either.

Jim and Josh arrived a few minutes later with Jim's luggage. We got a two bedroom so we could share with Jim and so he would not have to spend the entire long weekend in Josh's student housing. Which after seeing it, I am glad we did!

As 11:00 came and went, we still had no tickets. So we were preparing ourselves for the worst, which is really not too bad considering our apartment has a 56 inch big screen for the backup plan. We were all a bit nervous, but found some good entertainment value in the chat that Josh had been having with customer support at the ticket agency.

Cust Serv (23:35:25): How can I help you?

Cust Serv (23:35:29): hi

JMS (23:35:45): Hi Tina, we spoke earlier today about my order #XXXXXX. The tickets still haven't arrived yet.

Cust Serv (23:37:07): I know - i have been told by Jamie that the tickets will arrive at your house by 11am in the morning as he have to do lots of deliveries and was promised by him they will be with you at 11 at latest

Cust Serv (23:37:16): please accept my deepest apologies

JMS (23:37:36): 11am? This is now the fourth promise made by your company to me in the past two days.

JMS (23:37:40): This is unacceptable.

...

JMS (23:46:05): Thanks for your assistance on that. I know it's not your duty, and I am clearly angry, but I will not subject you to that anger.

Cust Serv (23:46:24): A refundable situation sir is where you did not get your goods as ordered and in time to watch the match

Cust Serv (23:46:39): but once again it is not my decision as you understand

JMS (23:46:56): I know that that's a full refund, but I think the stress caused here warrants a special situation.

JMS (23:47:11): But yes, I won't take it up with you! My mistake.

...

JMS (23:52:29): I don't think so. I'm sorry you've had to deal with me today (and plenty others like me I'm sure!) during this busy day. I know you're trying your best, but like I said earlier, my family flew in for this match and would ruin their holiday if this falls through.

Cust Serv (23:52:54): sir - I must say that you are one of the most kindest people I spoke to in this chat support ever!!!

JMS (23:53:17): Haha well I'm glad to hear that. I'm sure customer service can be very testing at times.

Cust Serv (23:53:40): you are very polite and kind despite being angry and dissapointed but you never had it on me at any point of our conversation and I thank you for that

JMS (23:54:26): Well I'm glad it has been a (relatively) positive experience. Hopefully I won't have to chat anyone at your business tomorrow at 11:15! Good night.

Cust Serv (23:54:49): I hope that the only chat you will have tomorrow is to say that you have got the tickets as ordered sir

Cust Serv (23:55:03): good night sir- sweet dreams

Sweet dreams indeed! By 9:00 the next morning, we got the good news that we had tickets in hand. The problem was that they were not in the category we had paid for. They were not bad tickets! In fact they were really good. Row 8 on the first level, but they were in the corner so we would be looking at the field the long way. Since the website said tickets were fully refundable if you did not receive tickets in the category you paid for you were eligible for a full refund. So we got online and complained a bit. The first response was that we had been upgraded, and that these were actually better tickets than we had ordered for this game. LOL.

Shortly after this conversation we received a call saying that they had tickets for us in the area we had ordered. However these were way up in the nosebleed area, and we would be split two and two. about this same time we also noticed that two of our tickets had post-it notes attached with the note that they were Junior tickets. Hmmm, maybe we got the wrong tickets? Maybe they need to swap with us to get these to some guy and his two kids. Well, we reasoned, we don't have to meet this guy and get the other tickets, possession is 90% of the law. So we began to think about breakfast. But before we all met up for breakfast, we got an email from Karen, who had been woken up at 3AM back in the US by a call from Thomas, who wanted us to call him on his mobile.

It turned out that Thomas also had tickets, but said they were "VIP tickets." Karmic payback for being "one of the kindest people I spoke to in this chat support ever"? Maybe! Two of these new tickets included access to a table in the Bobby Moore hospitality area (free pre-game meal and drinks), and two of them were "merely" on the Wembly Gold (free budweiser at halftime) level. So, in less than 12 hours we had gone from zero tickets to tickets that were beyond anything we could have imagined. These tickets would be delivered to us by another delivery person, and then we were to meet Thomas near Wembly to return the four we originally had received. The new courier arrived at our apartment in a shiny white Range Rover, and delivered our packets of tickets. They all looked legit, and we all had great seats right on the halfway line! Now all we had to do was find Thomas and hand over the old tickets. Those young children might get to see the game with their dad yet.

As we made the walk from the Wembley tube station towards the stadium we had many opportunities to sell our four extras. We thought that we might even make a profit, but our honesty and the fact that we had VIP tickets in hand, put us in the mood to carry on to our meeting point and keep up our end of the bargain. It is interesting to think about the business model and operations of a third party ticket seller. They are selling the tickets to us at a significant markup, but the tickets have to come from somewhere. So they have to be able to forecast in advance how many tickets from each area they will probably have, and then they need to get those tickets from the original owners to the new buyers. Its no wonder a lot of the transactions come down to the wire.

Our tickets allowed us into the stadium well in advance of the game so we had plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and check out all of our food, beverage and gift shop options. As we were standing in the gift shop I saw one young man in Reading blue from head to toe, with a big foam blue finger call out to his dad. His voice was shaking with excitement as his big blue finger pointed to a rack of merchandise. LIVERPOOL he said with longing. The dad just melted into the ground. I guess you can't control who your kids will choose for their football team, even in England.

As a fan of the Men in Blazers show, I was very excited to see that meat pies were available everywhere in the stadium. Tom's pies to be exact. So I enjoyed a very nice Guinness and roast beef pie as a pre-game meal. It is true, they are quite good. flakey crust, stringy tender roast beef and gravy on the inside, just like Sunday dinner back home. So, here is the obligatory food shot! You might also notice the betting sheet on the left side of the photo. You can bet on almost anything right there at the game. Final score, who will score, when will they score, who will score first, etc. It was too complicated for us so we left the betting up to others and saved our money for sausages and more food later.

beef pie

The game itself turned out to be good. It wasn't Arsenal's best performance of the year. But I blame that on Wenger for going away from the lineup that had us winning nine in a row. I would not have substituted Welbeck for Giroud, but I am not the manager. Nevertheless Alexis scored a great goal just before halftime and I was feeling good. A strong pep talk in the locker room and surely we would come out and seal the game with a couple more goals. It turned out that the opposite happened. Reading came out fired up and scored an equalizer, and we looked like we were playing "not to lose" which is our worst strategy. At the end of regulation it was Arsenal 1 - 1 Reading. OVERTIME! We were really getting our moneys worth out of these great seats. As long as we win in overtime and don't go to penalties life is good Which is what happened. shortly before the end of the first extra period Alexis scored again. It was kind of a sad screw up for the Reading keeper, but a victory is a victory!

Corner Kick

On to the FA Cup Final!

Homeward Bound in 77 Days

Somehow the midpoint of this journey escaped my notice. Its not surprising as it has been a busy and amazing two weeks, full of new cultures and new experiences. But, this morning we have time to just relax, watch the sea outside our room, and think about our experiences over the last three months. In total we will be gone for 179 days! That is a long time to be away from family and friends and the comforts of home. But the time has gone by quickly, and will only accelerate as we head towards the end.

I took a few minutes this morning to put together this map. The red pins show everywhere we have been since January 1, 2015 and the green pins show all the places we have yet to visit before we arrive back home on June 28th.

So, what do I take away from this journey so far? I would like to break it up into three themes:

  • The expanse of history
  • The variety of culture
  • The challenges of living away from home

History

I never would have guessed that a new understanding and appreciation for world history would have been one of my biggest takeaways from this experience, but it is certainly shaping up to be that way. A big reason for this has been the history course at the University of Malta, and seeing the evidence of history everywhere you turn. You go to Valletta and you can't escape seeing the walls and the buildings left behind by the Knights of St. John's. You visit other places and see the Megalithic temples or evidence of the Romans or Phonecians or the Ottoman Empire. But what is really cool is that now when we leave Malta I have a much better appreciation for the timescale and the artifacts left behind by these same people in other parts of the Mediterranean.

The scope of the Roman empire is simply amazing. As we were standing among the Roman ruins in Volubilis Morocco, we could just as easily have been standing in Ostia Antica in Italy. The frescos on the floor looked the same, the aqueducts and walls were identical to those we have seen in Italy, France, and Spain. Now we flew, on a jet, and drove in a fast car to all of these places. Its really hard to imagine how an empire like this managed when the way to travel was on horse, or foot, or camel. There was no internet to get word back to headquarters so its easy to imagine that important information would be lost or take many months to get from place to place.

In Malta, the arabic influence is clearly heard in the language, but not so much in the architecture. However now that we have traveled to Morocco and Spain it is interesting to see the influences of the Ottoman empire in both places. It is also interesting to see how all of the different empires recycled and reused materials from their predecessors. Mosques built from the stones of Christian churches and vice versa. Churches that still bear signs of a mosque built from stones taken from a prehistoric temple. I am really excited to visit Istanbul in a few weeks to see this city where Islaam and Christianity have coexisted for so many centuries.

I think that I have developed a better appreciation for the timescale of history. When we hear that at one time Malta was predominantly Muslim, but now Christian, or that the Berbers of Morocco were predominantly Jewish but are now Muslim you wonder how did that happen? Slowly. These are changes that took place over hundreds of years. Longer than the United States has been a country! Back home we might say, look at this old building, it has been around since 1849. That is barely a blip in the timescale of the history here in the Mediterranean. At the same time, I have developed a new appreciation for the importance of preserving our own historical artifacts for future generations to study and learn from.

Cultural Variety

Living on internet time, it is easy to think that everything and everyone has always changed as fast as it does today. But, it is easy to see that this is not true. In the pueblos blancos of Spain, the towns of Malta, and the villages of Vietnam and Cambodia, things don't move so fast. People still fix their old televisions and home appliances rather than just toss them aside after five years. In the medinas of Morocco and the villages of the Mekong delta people still use every part of every animal and plant. Husks of rice kernels are used to fire the kilns for making bricks, every part of the cow or goat or camel is used for something.

I love to observe the old men in the different places that we visit. They are the same everywhere! If I was a better photographer I would ask their permission so that I could take their pictures and share them. On my walk to the University in Malta ther are three guys that sit on the sidewalk every morning, talking and arguing and solving the worlds problems. In Spain we saw them in the small towns, having coffee when we would stop for our own mid-morning break from cycling. Having a coffee, and talking, arguing, and solving the worlds problems. In Morocco they gather for their tea and they talk and they argue and they solve the worlds problems. They supervise local construction projects everywhere. It is the same in Decorah as well: at the Back Home bakery, or the Oneota country club, or happy hour at Rubaiyat. In Decorah, I know the names of most of the men, and am slowly beginning to join their ranks.

Morocco was my first experience in traveling in a predominantly Muslim country. Vietnam and Cambodia are predominantly Buddhist. Malta is strongly Christian. Of course there are big differences in all of these religions, but the main thing that strikes me is that the people who practice any of these religions have much more in common than you might think. Of course, as our Moroccan guide noted, there are crazy Christians and crazy Muslims and crazy Jews who cause trouble, but the non-crazy people want to live good, healthy, peaceful lives. People of all faiths love their children and their neighbors and want to make the world a better place.

Talking about religion, you can't ignore Football (soccer). Soccer is another great unifier of people. If you are a soccer fan, you can find a friend almost anywhere. We have enjoyed watching the English Premier League in every country we have visited. Of course in Spain it was a bit more of a challenge as La Liga dominates here. But we have always been able to find a pub that carries the game. People everywhere know Arsenal and Manchester United. More importantly, they love to talk about their local team. I love to ask the waiters or the porters in the hotels if they are soccer fans and who they support. They are always a bit surprised to find an American that is an avid futball fan. Is soccer really growing in America? How did you become a fan? What will happen with the MLS? Are you happy that Steven Gerrard is joining the LA Galaxy? How many years will it be until the USA dominates in the world cup?

Living away from home

When we left home in January Jane and I talked about how this would be a great experiment. Would we be ready to be snowbirds? Would we miss our friends too much to leave Decorah for six months? What would it be like to make friends in a totally different culture? It turns out that this was a flawed experiment.

Although we have settled in to a flat in Malta its hard to compare this to what it would be like to have our own place in California or Arizona. Although the flat is perfectly livable it is not ours, it is not even something that we would choose if given the chance to look around. And, because we do not own the place and are only there for five months, we can't really change it. No painting, no updating, so Nespresso coffee maker. So we live with what we have, which is very different from how we would do things if it were our own.

I am grateful for my own research work. It has been nice to have some time to really sit back and think about the direction my research and work on Runestone Interactive will need to take over the next few years. I have learned that I am far from ready to retire or give up the exciting work that I do on this project and with students at Luther.

The people we have met in Malta are very nice, but we have not made new friends. Building relationships takes time and investment, and it is hard for others to invest when our time in Malta is so short. It is hard for us to invest when our time is short. It makes us think about being more welcoming and open to new friends back home. It is easy to settle in to the same comfortable group of friends week after week. It is much harder to break out and invite new people into the circle. Mike and Shirley do a much better job of that than anyone!

So, we have settled in to a routine that largely centers around the students and ourselves. Occasionally we have gone out with another couple, but this is fairly rare. We have Skyped or Facetimed with our friends and family back home and have really enjoyed those times as much as anything. Technology is a wonderful way to connect. All of those Jetsons cartoons I watched where they used the video phone have come true. So, although we have always valued our friends, we have learned how important those friendships are on a much deeper level than we knew before.

Although we have traveled many thousands of miles, and logged many nights in hotels and restaurants, it is important to stop and realize that this journey has been an inward journey as well. I am thankful for the growth and learning that this experience has brought so far, and I eagerly await the new experiences yet to come. As we prepare to pack up and head to the airport this afternoon, I find that I cannot say we are going home. Home will come soon, we will be home when we are back in Decorah and with friends and family on Bone Lake.

Andalusia Biking Summary

I'm just going to put all of the images into a big slideshow for this post.



  1. Malaga to Antequera: Tonight we stayed at the Convento Magadaleno after a very difficult ride through the Sierra del Torcal. 24 miles in the heat and a lot of climbing. We checked in to the convent, and then used the spa. Dinner was outside in one of the small hill towns close to the convent.
  2. El-Chorro to Ronda Through the Sierra de las Neives. We had seen El-Chorro from the train on the way to Malaga and were excited to bike here. It is beautiful. The afternoon climb was a bit much.
  3. Ronda - out and back to Grazalema -- Jane stayed in Ronda to explore while I went out for the day. The ride to Grazalema was great, and the hill town was cool.
  4. Olive trees in Granada: Tonight we moved to the Barcelo La Bobadilla. A wonderful five star hotel, with great restaurants and a good spa.
  5. Lunch in Iznajar: We skipped the crazy hard climb to start out the day, and coasted downhill instead. However since all hill towns are at the top of hills we still had a climb to finish off our riding and get a well deserved lunch in this cool town.
  6. Resting in Malaga

Biking in Andalusia

After a week in Morocco, Jane and I are now biking in the Andalusia region of Spain. Whereas Morocco was a bit of a mental and cultural challenge the biking is definitely a physical challenge! On day one we covered 24 miles and climbed 4,400 feet. On day two 27 miles and 6,600 feet. That is definitely a PR for me in terms of climbing.

I'm sitting in the hotel room this morning with mixed emotions. Its quite windy and cool outside this morning and I'm thinking of all of the climbing ahead of me, and my legs are a bit on the worn out side. On the other hand, we have seen some great scenery, this is really beautiful country. Jane made her decision yesterday, she is getting a massage, she is going shopping, she is pretty smart.

Fast forward to 5:00 I am back from biking, my legs are tired another 24 miles, not so much elevation today, only 3,500 feet. But I don't mind, my legs are tired. Did I already mention that? Today I rode with Flynn, he is a young Australian, and an avid rock climber as well as cyclist. On our way out to Grazelema for lunch, we stopped at a hiking trail with a nice overlook of an ancient dam. The dam is very interesting as it was built in the early 19th century by workers working round the clock eight hour shifts. However after the dam was finished they discovered that they had used the wrong kind of stone, and it leaked badly. They were never able to repair the dam and make it usable for generating electricity, and so it was abandoned without ever being used.

dam

At lunch we decided that exploring around the dam would be a good diversion. Especially if we could walk out on top of it! So we rode the van back to the hiking area and started our way down. We were rewarded with some pretty spectacular views. As usual, its the unplanned side-trips that turn out to be the most interesting.

To summarize the trip to date, we have had some great food and stayed at some wonderful hotels. Our first night was in an old convent - convento magdalena -- in the Andalusian countryside. nestled in between the mountain peaks it was very secluded and a great place to start our rest and relaxation. The picture below shows the clouds spilling over the mountain. They would come across the top and fall down into the valley, then they would rise up again and disappear before our eyes.

clouds

Day 2 brought us to the town of Ronda where we are spending two nights at the hotel Reina Victoria. It is obviously a popular biking stop as groups from Trek and Backroads are also staying here. The hotel has a nice spa, and we have a fabulous view out the window of our room. The view is because we are at the edge of town and right on the edge of a cliff.

Ronda

Ronda is a fascinating little town. A medieval village with Phoenician, Roman, and Arab walls. The whole town is on top of a highly defensible outcropping of rock. You would have to go steeply uphill, or straight up a cliff from almost any direction in order to attack the town. Ronda is divided into the old part which has the traditional "pueblos blancos" and the new part. The two halves are joined by the "new bridge" built in the seventeenth century. It is quite a marvel of engineering for that day!

New Bridge

Lost in the Souks

As I dropped Jane and Tricia off at the spa for their pedicure the young man at the door said with a grin, "I'll give you 20 camels for your daughter!" Oh crap, I thought, not another session of haggling!

Not my daughter I said.

Oh, no problem, then 20 camels for her and 20 camels for you.

Great, I have nine more like her! I'll be back later.

We shook hands laughing and parted ways. Such is the life in the Marrakech markets. For the record, I'm just kidding Angel, Jenna, Meredith, Meredith, Tricia, Rachel, Erika, Olivia, Katie and Emma! I would hold out for at least thirty camels a piece.

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The women are worth 200 camels, I don't know what I'll do with the guys.

Joking aside, traveling with 10 "daughters." did present a few challenges. Before we left, we had discussed with the students that Morocco has not come as far in the area of Women's rights as the United States and many other european countries. This was hammered home for us as we drove into Marrakech and our guide told us breathlessly that in Marrakech we would see something new and very different... (long pause) Women on motor scooters!

Before we left we told our "daughters" that it was important to adopt a more conservative style of dress for this trip. Cover your shoulders, no tank-tops and no short-shorts we said. And they all followed this, although next time I would explicitly add running tights to my list of items to not wear. We heard a few mutters from our students as we saw female tourists from other countries in revealing outfits. Nevertheless, our daughters stuck out, the long blond hair, and blue eyes (and, unfortunately, the running tights) were a real attraction for many of the local young men.

We learned that sixteen year old boys are idiots no matter where you are in the world. One night a group of boys followed five of the daughters back from a restaurant. Although they said they were not in danger, it was definitely an uncomfortable situation for them to be ogled and followed down the narrow dark streets of the medina by this small group. Other times we all heard the whistles or moans and comments from men of all ages as the group walked by. When you walked in the back of the group it was painfully obvious to watch the heads turn and stare as the group went by. I'm hoping that some of them will write about this from their own perspective in their journals or blogs and that we can have further conversation about this back in Malta.

Today is our last day of traveling with the students for the Malta Easter break. Tomorrow we go our separate directions. The students to Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany, England, Greece and the Czek Republic. Jane and I to southern Spain.

It has been an amazing trip, Morocco is surprisingly beautiful at every turn. We have learned a lot about this country, its history, its culture and its people. The people are cheerful, and as you can see from the exchange above they have a great sense of humor.

Nowhere is that sense of humor more evident than in the Souks, the great marketplace of Marrakech. They say that you haven't been to Marrakech if you haven't gotten lost in the Souks. So, we did. There are thousands and thousands of small shops, all arranged in a twisty maze seemingly designed to draw you deeper and deeper so that you have to pass by even more shops to get out.

There are leather shops, wool and agave silk dyeing shops, wood shops, copper and silver shops, shops with tagines of all shapes and sizes. Nothing has a price on it of course, which is what makes the whole thing such an adventure. You have to be careful about even looking too hard at anything or the shop keeper will come up to you and draw you into the store, if you ask the price, you must be prepared for something beyond anything you are willing to pay.

We were offered "student prices," "democratic prices," "special price for friends from America prices," and more. Its all part of the game. leather bags and purses that started out at over one thousand durhams could be had for 250 to 500, depending on their quality and the willingness of the bargainer to simply walk out of the shop and leave the poor shopkeeper looking sad.

We were coached:
I make you a price now you make me a price. What if I don't want this? Its ok, we will still be friends. Now make me a price.

When Jane came back with an offer that was too low on a purse the shopkeeper was deeply hurt and began to put all of the stuffing back in the purse. "For that you can buy a camel purse." A few moments later when one of our students volunteered her to come up 50 durham (about $5), the sale was cheerfully closed, and we were all friends again.

We had demonstrations of quality. Lighters held up to leather, "if this was camel leather it would burst into flames, but this is good cow leather." fingers were licked and run across the died leather, to demonstrate that the color did not in fact come off when the leather got wet.

We had another seminar on spices and their medicinal properties of varous spices and aphrodesiac properties of various herbs. "Except for you," she said to one of the young men in our group. "You don't need this!" This time the seminar ended with extra large shopping baskets being passed out to everyone. Then she started over going through each item again with a chance to purchase. I have a nice package of Nigella seeds that will clear my nose and help my asthma. In addition to some nice Morrocan curry and Harissa.

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Jane and I are now in the Marrakech airport. The students are safely on their way, and we have a little longer to wait before we can check in and make our way through security. From here we will travel to Seville then Malaga where we will meet our guides for our bike trip for the next few days.

A visit to the Kasbah

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The houses in the Ksar are made of big clay and straw bricks for the very practical reason that they keep the temperature down to a comfortable level even when the outside temperature reaches 49 degrees C. Remember to convert that to F you double it which is already a warm 98 degrees, but then add 32! The Ksar is built into the side of a steep hill, so as we went up from the lower part of the town to the upper the views became more spectacular.

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At about the midway point of our climb our guide stopped outside his own house. "You are welcome here" he said. This is a phrase we have heard everywhere in Morocco from many different people. It is a phrase that our guide has said to us as we enter each new city we are stopping in. It is a phrase I've been thinking about all day. It has a much different feel than "welcome to Fez." it is at once more personal, more authentic, and in a place where we wondered whether we really would be welcome it is is quite comforting.

We had a stop at a local artists studio where he was painting with indigo, Saffron, and "berber whiskey" the green mint tea that you get everywhere in Morocco. The interesting thing about the tea is that it is when you paint with it it acts like invisible ink. You can't see it until you heat it up. So he paints the picture and it looks like there are pieces missing until he holds the picture over the flame and reveals the finished work. At only $5.00 a painting many in our group bought a picture to remember this part of the trip by.

Towards the end of the tour we came upon a mosque which is still in daily use. Right next to the mosque was a synagogue, no longer in use. The history of the Berber people is very old, and interesting. At one time the majority of the Berber's were Jewish, then for a time the majority were Christian, but now they have been Muslim for a long time. We've heard a similar story about the Maltese, although they are now Christian. This change in religiion does not happen over night, of course, it happens over generations. The result for the Berbers is that they are peaceful, and very tolerant.

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We want to get along with all people our guide told us. He went on, the problems in the world today are caused by three things: money, politics, and crazy people -- Crazy Jews, Crazy Muslims, and Crazy Christians. Most people are good and peaceful people, its a shame the crazy people have to ruin it. Thats a pretty succinct way of summing up the state of things in the world. It was also an echo to commnents made by a previous guide about "idiots in Iraq" destroying relics of their own ancient heritage. Clearly no one religion has cornered the market on crazy people. It seems that during our travels those we have met have gone out of their way to emphasize that most Muslims are peace loving people that don't have any ill will towards us. I think its the same for me. I'm embarrassed by the crazy Christians as much as they are embarrassed by the crazy Mulsims. The more important question is what to do about the crazies?

In our travels this year we have encountered amazing people of all faiths, Buddhists in Vietnam, and Cambodia, Muslims in Morocco, and Christians in Rome and Malta. It is these people that have made the past months memorable. On this Easter weekend, it is a bit strange to be in a Muslim country knowing the Easter celebrations going on back home.

I wish all of our friends and neighbors far and wide Peace, and a blessed Easter.

A Night in the Desert

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"Camel noses!" came the answer from the back of our mini-bus. The question was "what is one memory or thought you would take away from yesterday?" Other thoughts about yesterday centered around the bookends of sunrise and sunset, changes in geography, the orange of the dunes against the blue sky, the beauty of the desert sunset, and the awesomeness of being present in the place and the moment.

Note: This is an expanded version of a post that I wrote for Luther's Ideas and Creations blog.

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So, where were we? We began our day watching the sunrise on the rooftop terrace of our Riad in the ancient city of Fez Morocco. From there we travelled through the Middle Atlas Mountains with stops for a snowball fight and monkey feeding. We descended from the mountains into the plains where we travelled through towns abandoned with the overland spice trade. Ultimately, the plains turn to desert with high plateaus. We experienced the wonder of coming around a bend and seeing a valley oasis, full of Date Palms. We ended our day about 35 kilometers from the Algerian border, at a desert camp site watching the sun set over the Moroccan desert. It was quite a day.

We arrived just after 6pm at the auberge where we met our guides for the night. We tied up our turbans and mounted our camels. This was a new experience for all but one of our group. As we rode out of the hotel area and into the dunes, each camel got a name. We also learned that camels are not the most comfortable beasts to ride. But it was fun, and a great shared learning experience for everyone.

Many of the students shared a sentiment along the lines of "Holy Crap! How did I get so lucky to be here on a sand dune in the middle of the desert?" If you haven't experienced the quiet beauty of desert sand dunes you should add it to your bucket list. As one member of the group said, "it is just sand, but it is really beautiful." For me, the word that has stuck in my head throughout our time here in Morocco has been authentic. The leather tanneries of Fez are not selling mass produced goods. The marketplace is a real working marketplace. The dunes are not arranged for our viewing pleasure. You will find no dune gardeners out there arranging things and picking up the trash. The wind and the sand take care of the cleaning. Last night's footprints were erased by the breeze that came up early this morning.

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Desert sunset

After enjoying the sunset at the top of one of the taller (160 feet) dunes, we came down to our little nomadic camp in the valley where our guides, four young men, served us tea. We talked with them a bit about how the recent attack in Tunisia has had very negative impact on tourism in Morocco. It is sad for them, as this is such a beautiful country, and we have felt safe and warmly welcomed almost everywhere. At length, tea was followed by a Moroccan meal. There was a rice salad with tuna and tomato, onion, peppers and oranges. followed by a tagine filled with potatoes, carrots, and beef. For desert, oranges and apples. After cleaning up a bit our guides returned with traditional African drums and played and sang for us.

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Jane and I in the setting sun

There were no distractions from this group experience as we had no cell service and no WiFi. They sang some traditional Moroccan songs for us. All of them were Muslim, and at least two of them came from Berber backgrounds. There was a bit of dancing by Jenna and Angel, and drum lessons for a few. When they finished they asked us to sing for them. It was a little bit sad how hard we had to struggle to think of a song everyone knew. The nostalgic part of me thinks that could be because we need more nights of face to face entertainment, and fewer with WiFi. The other parts of me are happy to be writing this post on my iPad knowing I can upload it and all the pictures from almost anywhere else. In the end, Ethan, Ben, and I were the brave one's and we gave our best rendition of the college hymn, "To Luther." A bit later the appropriate beat inspired a rousing rendition of "We Will Rock You" with Ben taking the lead and showing a part of himself that I hadn't seen yet.

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This morning, when I got to the top of the dune to watch the sun rise, I found a water bottle left over from a previous group. The wind had blown the sand over and around the bottle leaving a very interesting pattern on the leeward side. A miniature example of the sand dunes and the desert as a whole. I don't know what the last two days will mean for the students in the long run. I don't even know how today's experience will shape my own future. But I know it will, as each past travel adventure has left its mark. It strikes me that the bottle and the dunes are a great metaphor for study abroad and Lutheran higher education. We can lecture for hours, and give them days of homework, but it is these experiences that will shape our students in ways we cannot possibly imagine or plan.

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