Monthly Archives: June 2015

Camino to Morocco, Chapter 6

Had I been anyone else, in Morocco for any other reason, my association with Amine would likely have continued, perhaps until I left.  Besides, his insistence that he continue on with me, despite my assurance that I no longer needed him, made me a bit uncomfortable.  Furthermore, his repeated rant that he “Swears to God, that I got the best carpet bargain he had ever seen,” and insistence that I not tell anyone else (especially my friends in Fes) about my purchase made me squirm a bit.  “They’ll just be jealous and tell you that you could have gotten a better deal somewhere else.”

Despite my gratitude for the “wonderful assistance” he had provided, learning that he had a pre-purchased a train ticket on to Fes gave me the opportunity to part ways.  I “really needed to get to Fes immediately, because my friends are already there waiting for me,” and the train would not be leaving for there for two hours.  He promised to call me as soon as he arrived, “to help me in any way possible.”

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Taxi service in Morocco, as I’ve described in a previous post is a real treat.  Although I observed many others attempting to haggle on price, apparently on the longer, established routes, like between cities, one uses a “Grand Taxi,” and the price per seat is firm. These (typically black small old Mercedes) cars are packed with 4 in the back, and 3 in the front.  Insanity appeared to be the only requirement for the drivers on each of the three times I utilized this fine form of transport.  The authorities seemed quite generous in licensure, since one was clearly younger than 16, one was most definitely older than 80, and one seemed to have Turret’s or was under the influence of something, which under different circumstance would have been entertaining.

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I had to take my fellow passengers word that we had in fact arrived in Fes.  Nothing was posted in any language that I could understand.  I got out and looked for someone who in retrospect I suppose expected to have the name “Abdullah” printed in a bubble-cloud overhead and an arrow pointing towards him.

Then I remembered that I did have a phone I had purchased the day before in Casablanca, and I had added three contacts.  Amine had called me (numerous times), so his was there by default, and Katie (a later post) had given me numbers for both Abdullah, and his brother Allal.  I tapped Abdullah’s name, and as the phone rang, I noticed a man standing not ten feet from me reach for his phone and answer it.  Our eyes met as we spoke to each other.

We embraced with the traditional greeting: A light man-hug, followed by kisses on three alternating cheeks, and I proudly blurted out, “Asalamu-wa-alay-kuum.”  Abdulla smiled approvingly, and as he replied, “Wa-lay-kuum-a-salam,” he pointed directed to his brother, and very soon to become my own, Allal.

Allal took it even a step further, and after our embrace, bowed slightly and touched his right hand to his heart.  I have learned in so many cultures, that all this gesturing is not only tradition, it is very important, and symbolizes how heartfelt one’s feelings are about something or someone.  We miss so many of these nuances if our eyes and hearts aren’t open to them.

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Allal El Harrami

The taxi from the airport dropped us off at what everyone called “bahtah” (sp?), which was kind of a central area, with a few shops, a cafe overlooking the street, a mosque, and I’d soon discover a couple entrances to the “Old Fes” souk.  My two new brothers led me through a maze of cobblestone paths between what at night seemed to be tall walls with doors at street level and windows on the next floors, at intervals.  These were actually hundreds of homes, and each block between streets (paths) seemed to be about a dozen homes, all connected in apartment kind of buildings.  I was struck by how well lit these streets all were, and that there were children out so late – it was well after 11:00pm.

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Soon we stopped, and after unlocking the door climbed lots of white terrazzo stairs into the home of Abdullah and his wonderful wife Nisrine.  We were met with screams of excitement from their beautiful little boy.  Reda appeared to be about three years old, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm.  When I opened my backpack and pulled out the customary gifts for my “host family,” we bonded instantly.  Who knew salt water taffy, a shirt from Melbourne Beach, Florida, and a couple of ball caps would be so treasured?!!

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I was tired, hot and sweaty, and looking around for a couch or a corner where I could unroll my sleeping bag.  Nisrine cleared the table, in what I assumed was just tidying up prior to retiring a very long, exhausting day.  This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

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Camino to Morocco, Chapter 5

I like to explore when I travel, and soak up as much of the genuine culture as I can.  However, tourists typically only see part of the picture; as if we’re in Disney’s Epcot Center.  Yes, it actually looks pretty realistic, for what it depicts…

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And that’s certainly fun, and genuine enough for lots of folks.  But we don’t get to see the locals as humans, and they don’t see us as humans.  Many of us don’t care – we’re on holiday, and just want to have fun, be safe, and maybe do a little shopping.

Conversely, many of them most definitely don’t care about us (superficial tourists) as people. They’re most certainly glad we’re there, but the bottom line is, the bottom line.  We pay the bills.  And that’s okay too, but if the whole experience stops there, the world that seemed to be so much smaller, suddenly gets massive and distant again.  We see them as providers of products and entertainment, and they see us as the audience willing to buy a ticket, spectators if you will.

That kind of relationship has gone on for thousands of years.  Life becomes a transaction.  I don’t care about you, and you don’t care about me.  It’s all about business.  So what’s the problem?

We find ourselves loving things and using people, instead of the other way around.  This gives us license to be the rude tourist, arrogant and demanding, superior and entitled.  I’ve been so embarrassed at times observing how rude a fellow tourist has behaved, especially if they’re Americans.  Because they can.  And Americans certainly have no monopoly on this, but we do have more than our share.

Perhaps this is just human nature, our “free will” dropping us down a few notches because of the anonymity of dealing with strangers.  But (back home), doesn’t this mentality look like (or result in) internet bullying and road rage?  “It’s all about me.”

So I was on the train, daydreaming about the souks (markets) I had just seen in Marrakech and wondering about lots of this stuff.  My gears are always turning, and I tend to overanalyze and make a life lesson out of every interaction.  (Shocking, huh?)  I stared out the window at the houses, apartments, and slums that passed in a blur.  This was also Morocco, and some of it was an underbelly.  I’d later learn that (other than a few pickpockets), crime was quite rare. Alcohol and drugs are haram (forbidden), and seldom part of this culture.  But I didn’t know this yet.  This was still very foreign, and a bit frightening.  Very few looked like me, and the folks on the street did not speak any  of my language.  As time passed this was becoming a bit of a concern, because I really didn’t know which train stop would be mine.

Originally, after leaving Casablanca, I had intended to stop in Rabat, because it is only one of three areas in the entire country with a Christian community.  Me being me, I wanted to go there, kneel in their church, stand in solidarity, show them the world cares about their plight.  When my wife saw that I had printed out a listing of all the churches in the country, she became very worried.  My siblings calling to share their concerns only added to her angst.

Well, as it turned out, I was scheduled to be in Fez on Friday evening, so staying in Rabat was off the table, and so, still wanting to stop somewhere on the way, I decided I’d get off in Meknes for the day.  Fodor’s Travel Guide said it had a fantastic souk, and if I was lucky, sometimes on Fridays they have auctions of produce, livestock, hand made rugs, and leather goods there in the city square.

I had prepared about 50 index cards with a Moroccan word, question, or phrase on one side (the phonetic spelling of it anyway), and the meaning or usage of the expression on the other.  I was busy refreshing my horrible memory, and fumbling through the cards to find some way to ask someone sitting in my train compartment where I should get off for Meknes.

I had sprung for a “first class” seat (12 bucks instead of 9), and so our train car was divided into compartments, with 4 seats on each side, facing each other, with a table between.  I notices the girl sitting across from me was reading The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, an author I had recently become quite familiar with, since he also wrote The Pilgrimage (about the Camino de Santiago).

None of my cards said anything about “where is…” or “I need to stop at…” so I fell back on some of the French I learned when we did the mission trip to Haiti.  “Es-cue-zz-a-mwaa, Parlay voo On-glays?”

She didn’t even have the common courtesy to smile, but actually giggled at my ridiculous attempt at communication, Fatima replied in heavily Moroccan accented, but perfect, English.  “Yes I do, but just a bit.”  This was quite untrue. She was completely fluent.  We spoke for about 20 minutes, and as it turns out her father is a veterinarian. She thought this an amazing co-incidence but, of course, I did not.

Anyway, so there was someone else in our compartment who spoke English, who “just so happened to be going to Meknes, and Amine ‘would glad, honored in fact,’ to get me off the train at the right place, and ‘show me around’.”

P.T. Barnum coined the famous phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  That, of course would be me.  You probably know where this is going.  Funny thing is, I did too, because I’d done enough reading of blogs and guidebooks to know how the system operates.

Despite this, I love a good adventure, so I took the bait.

And Amine played the part so well, I almost felt like I needed to play along.  He claimed to work for UNESCO (Red Flag #1, I seriously doubted that), which alot of people are familiar with, and I was from the travel guides, which always mention the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in each country as “must-sees.” And this was so convenient!  He just so happened to be off today, and headed for the same place he heard us talking about.  And this is the most fantastic part…

“Wait, Amine almost shouted at me, “Wait, what day is this?”  Its Friday!  (Red Flag #2 – seriously? How would you be ‘off today’ and not know what day it was?) “You’re in luck!  This is the day when they hold auctions, and you’ll find the best deals in the entire country.”  “Really? That’s fantastic, I’d love to watch the auction I’ve heard so much about, but I doubt I’ll be buying anything.  I just arrived, and don’t want to be carrying anything around.”

“You won’t have to carry anything around!  The best deals are on the hand made rugs, made by the poor widows in the countryside, and they have an organization that will ship their beautiful work anywhere in the world!”  (Red Flag #3 – really? to benefit the poor widows?)

A few minutes later when Amine left our box to smoke, I asked if Fatima thought he was being honest, and that I suspected he didn’t really work for UNESCO – that he was just trying to take me to his cousin’s rug store.  She laughed again, and agreed the story was full of holes, but that I would probably enjoy a day with him anyway.

So Fatima gave me her father’s phone number, and Amine and I got off the train successfully in Meknes.  In no time I was following him through the souk and seemingly making a beeline somewhere.

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As we climbed the stairs up to what appeared to be a storage warehouse filled with carpets, I was offered tea.

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Clearly I was a business target.  “So when does the auction start?” I asked curiously.  “Oh,” he stammered.  There’s not one today, but these are the rugs that would have been offered for sale.” (Red Flag #4)

I looked around at literally thousands of rugs.  “Wow, there must be lots of widows in Meknes!”

Amine looked at me like, “Can this guy really be this naive?”  But he continued.  “Yes, this is years’ worth of work.”

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“But how would they know what to charge, without an auction?”  “Oh, they all have price tags on them, marked with what you’d pay in a store.  But they know me, and since I brought you here, you’ll get a really good price!” (Red Flag #5).  Wow, I thought, Lucky me!  “And really, I don’t have to pay you anything, for showing me around, and finding me this house of bargains?”

“Well…  Perhaps you could buy me lunch, that would be fair, no?”

So, needless to say I did buy a couple of rugs.  Even if I was wrapped up in a scam, I knew what I’d need to pay for handmade Moroccan rugs.  And I got them for less than a fourth of what I had priced them on EBay a few months ago.  Besides, we did need a runner for the stairs.

And Amine took me to a really good restaurant.  Where they all seemed to know him also.

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Camino to Morocco, Chapter 4

I had assured my wife that I would not wander into potentially dangerous exploring in Morocco, because of her our preconceived fears surrounding an American hiking and exploring in the Middle East.  And yet the first day found me walking up and down roads looking for stuff described in the guide-books without really a clue as to where I was or which direction I was headed.  I only knew that I had started at the Hassan II Mosque and started walking due east.  But there were a few things spinning my compass..

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None of the streets were set up set up in a grid, traveling strait with right and left turn options.  They all seemed to veer right or left with no apparent pattern , and some just dead ended, so I’d need to walk all the way back to the last turn option.

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Further, few could really be called streets, having no names, and just wide enough for two people to pass, or maybe a donkey cart.  In fact the sanitation department was a bunch of dudes with a basket on a donkey .  You can’t make this stuff up.

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I browsed through my first souq (alt. spelling souk), which is an open market, or bazaar (in Muslim communities, especially those with influences from the Berber tribes).

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I drank it all in – the sight of this kind of commerce; the street musician sounds of the nair (flute), tbilat (much like clay bongo drums), and ginbri and rabab (strings); the intoxicating smells of fresh produce and exotic spices sold in bulk.

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I did my best to not look like a tourist, spinning around in amazement.  But these sights and sounds encouraged me to wander through and through block after block and turn after turn, until I could only laugh at the thought that my “internal compass” would keep me confident that I had some kind of idea where I was.

Vendors constantly zoned in and shouted out to me, my appearance making me stand out as the “idiot abroad,” the “mark” who would have no idea what a bargain price was.   But I had absolutely no interest in buying anything for a while, so I was just a gawker, in awe of the whole experience.  This was about as threatened as I would feel this entire trip – everybody with their hand out, shouting, “Choose me! Choose me!”  Hands out would be an understatement.  Beggars everywhere, in fact its even encouraged, as almsgiving is required, as one of the pillars of Islam.  Not all the hands were so generous – pickpockets, I’d learn, were everywhere.  Furthermore, if it was obvious you were taking a picture – even of something they were selling, like bags of spice – they expected a payment!  So the vast majority of my pictures were taken from waist level, as I was walking, with my iPad (remember no phone), and explains why a few, unfortunately are blurry.

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And so I was, in fact, very lost.  Although I didn’t feel like I was in any danger, this was kind of a crazy feeling.  I had absolutely no idea where I was, any landmarks, and absolutely no one spoke my language.  It was a little scary, but I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.  I knew better than to bring out a map in public, so I sought out a cafe (with wifi), and sat to enjoy an almond paste pastry thingy and mint tea.

Mint tea is the national beverage.  Remember this is a “dry country,” and difficult or impossible to find a cold beer on a hot day.  Even watching sports.  Can you imagine watching a football (or futbol) game without a beer in one hand?  Everyone still gathers to eat and drink, and watch.   But no alcohol.  Period.  (I’d later discover it wasn’t completely true, but for the sake of this post, it was very true).  Why it works in these countries, but we couldn’t pull it off during prohibition in ours, I have no idea.  Something about being “haram” I’d suppose – more about that later.

Anyway, mint tea (“at tay”), is fondly referred to as “Moroccan Whiskey.”  It is simply a very strong brew of green tea, steeped with fresh mint leaves (and not just a few sprigs for garnish).  It’s preparation and delivery, (much like a properly drawn Guiness), must be done correctly, almost ceremoniously.  Drinking tea is as much about hospitality as it is having a drink, and accompanies most family and friend conversations, many business transactions, and always when one is entertaining.

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Three teaspoons of green tea with an entire handful of spearmint leaves and what seems like about a half bag of sugar are added to the pot of boiling hot water to steep for a few minutes.  The tea is served in small glasses, not cups.  After steeping, the first glass (or two) are poured back into the pot!  Nobody explained why, it’s just done that way – probably helps dissolve the massive amount of sugar, and disperses all the subtle flavors.  To skip this step, borders on blasphemy.  Likewise, one must pour from a height of at least a foot, and two or even three would not be uncommon.  This aerates the brew and actually creates a head on the drink.

So I thoroughly enjoyed this little snack and a bit of a sugar buzz (who needs alcohol?), and pulled out my trusty guide books.  I’d actually done most of what I had wanted to do for the day, except to dine in the infamous Rick’s Cafe.

The map showed that I was about 5 miles from Rick’s Cafe, which was about 2 blocks from the Mosque.  I decided to splurge and get a taxi there.  It cost 200 dirham (about 2 dollars).

If you have no idea what Ricks Cafe in the movie, Casablanca, you clearly aren’t part of my parent’s generation.  But even I remember Sam singing, “As Time Goes By.”  I can’t really describe in words why I find myself, in my travels, experiencing things I think other people would like, but I just do.

Casablanca is the greatest classic movie ever made.  Released in 1942, it was in the midst of the “Big One,” WWII, and people flocked to see it (and continue to do so on the Turner Classic Movie Channel).  Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman Claude Rains, and so many other stars that our parents idolized star in, again, THE finest movie ever made (with all due respect to Citizen Kane).  Of course, the early 40’s special effects don’t compare to modern movies, but that just adds to the character and charm of this film. Not that there aren’t some very good movies being made today, but too many of them seem to showcase special effects instead of relying on the story to carry the film.

Casablanca is a timeless love story played out amid WWII. I can only imagine watching this in 1943 when the fate of the world was very much in doubt. The sacrifices everyone made in their everyday lives in 1940s to support the War Effort compared to our days today. It has something for everyone. Action, romance, drama and just enough humor to make it the best of all time.

Ok, so full disclosure admits that Rick’s Cafe was only a set in Hollywood.  But it was recreated, apparently to the size and location of every table, and finish of each fixture according to set construction.  Multiple big screen TVs played the movie, with the sound just loud enough that you could hear half the people there quoting the classic lines, “Welcome to the fight,” “Play it again Sam,” etc, etc.  It just felt pretty cool.

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Camino to Morocco, Chapter 3

Dar Diafa was the least expensive B & B that I could find listed, and I really needed my first night to be planned.  By American standards, the $126 a night I paid to stay there was reasonable, and I chose it because it was half or a third the cost of most of the other places I found listed online; it would turn out to be one of the (fortunately few) things I would grossly overpay for.  By Moroccan standards that same 1260 dirham would have been an outrageous sum to pay.  Going forward, I would be doing my best with cultural immersion, by being allowed to travel and live with them, and so this would be, by far, the most expensive place I’d stay.

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Anyway, the facilities at Dar Diafa were fabulous, management very obliging and helpful, and the provided breakfast was quite different for me, and although simple, was more than adequate.

I never saw Moroccans dip their pastries into their coffee, so I really think the bowl type cups I was provided with my coffee were more of an accommodation for the French, who I remember like to do this.  I did it last year, and just found myself with a cupful of brew with lots of flakes floating around in it.  I didn’t get it, and since the natives didn’t appear to be doing it this year, I just drank my coffee from the bowl, as if it was a cup.

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I inhaled the pastries they put in front of me, as I busily wrote down all the “must sees,” for the day, and then asked to have a taxi called so I could go to the Mosque I’d heard so much about.

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Khalid appeared to be angry, shouting at the taxi driver he had called to take me to the mosque.  I’d soon learn that this was neither anger, nor shouting, but rather part of the culture.  I then learned it wasn’t personal, they tried to overcharge everybody for stuff!  They would speak loudly and right up in each other’s faces, about what something would cost.  This would appear to be an unpleasant exchange, but soon they’d agree on some (often arbitrary) price, then smile and shake hands, as if they were best pals.  And maybe they were!  I’d soon learn that posted prices would really be more like guidelines, and it was almost expected to move back and forth across that line – apparently like the center-line on the mountain road for the bus I’d ride in a few days.

Anyway, as he opened the taxi door for me, Khalid was emphatic, I was to pay 180 dirham, no more!  And pretty predictably, as the driver let me out at the Mosque, he firmly demanded 250.  I refused, and said 180, but before he could shout back at me something about my mother, I said, “OK, 200 (because I was gonna round up for his tip anyway).  He smiled, and acted like he was so glad to have been of service to me.  Win-Win, I suppose.

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The Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in Morocco, and the 7th largest in the world. Its minaret is the world’s tallest at 210 metres (689 ft).  I had been told that it is the only mosque in Morocco where kafir (in polite terms, this means non-muslims), are allowed to enter.  I suspected there were other implications of the word, including infidel, unbeliever, and basically (apparently) unsaved.  It was later explained to me that this “prohibition” is really only “tradition,” and that non-muslims actually are allowed to enter any mosque (except the “Grand Mosque” in Mecca), for educational purposes, as long as we’re not dirty, dressed inappropriately, or have ill intent.  However the practice is seldom allowed, because of the “scandal” it would cause among those there for worship, who might not take such a gracious or welcoming posture.

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They held English (and other) language scheduled tours, and I was anxious to have a look around.  Grand would be an understatement, both in size and furnishing.  Just a few fun facts that I learned on the tour:  Shortly after King Mohammed V died and was replaced by the still current King Hassan II, he commissioned it as the single landmark of Casablanca, as a mausoleum to honor the departed king.  His statement announcing the groundbreaking:

I wish Casablanca to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time … I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.

Quoting the Quran (11:7), “And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days – and His Throne had been upon water – that He might test you as to which of you is best in deed.”

And so, indeed the Mosque was in fact (at least partially) built over the waters of the Atlantic, with the sea bed being visible through the glass floor of a portion of the building’s hall.  

And the whole worship thing is very interesting.  Seeing this massive structure, envisioning 30,000 people on their knees, prostrating themselves giving glory and homage to Allah, with another 80,000 outside would be breathtaking.

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Construction of the structure over a seven-year period involved 1400 men working during the day and another 1100 during the night. They used marble from Agadir, cedar wood from the Middle Atlas, and granite from Tafraoute; Venetian glass was the only imported material. This is just an awfully impressive structure – and I don’t just mean the glass flooring for worshipers to see God’s water below, the marble flooring is heated, it has a retractable roof, and and even a laser light atop its minaret, pointing the way to Mecca each night. There’s also an ablutions hall with more than 40 fountains and two public hammams.  (More about that stuff later)

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Don’t panic, ya’ll.  I’m still an infidel.  You don’t need to “drink the kool-aid” to appreciate a beautiful thing, done in an attempt to glorify God.  Only by recognizing the beauty of each other’s traditions can we learn about common denominators and not (only) focus on our differences.

As I walk the dusty roads of Morocco, I’m fascinated by this culture, so different from anything I’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, experienced.  There was so much more to come.

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I took a few pictures, including the obligatory selfies, and after agreed with myself that I was on no schedule.  So I just started walking.  My internal compass is pretty good, and so after reading about a few things that Fodor’s and Frommer’s (travel guides) described as “must sees,” I just started walking back over towards my hotel.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Categories: cultural, hotel - wifi, post - educational, post - relaxing/having fun! | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camino to Morocco – Just a Side Note

Long ago I read an article written by someone who hates Facebook because of their observation that people there tend to shout, “Look at me!  I’m doing something so cool! You’re life is so boring, don’t you wish you could be me?”

Before I publish a blog post, I proofread it several times, checking for several things, and I honestly try hard to avoid pointless bragging.  If I talk about doing something that could be considered exotic or cool, its because I’ve learned, grown, and/or been made better through the process.  Sure, lots of things are exotic and cool, but I share them because they are, and I realize most of my family and friends will never get to experience this stuff.  I likely never will again either.

Likewise, I make a point for my posts to be neither typical travel entries, extolling or vilifying hotels and attractions, nor food blogs with pictures of scrumptious (or disappointing) meals.  I strive to share experiences and pictures not to say, “look at me!” but rather “look at this!  This is so incredible!  I’m just an ignorant hick from a little town, and I’ve never even imagined anything like this!”

Again much of this trip was to see the world as my son saw it, and see exactly what had caused such incredible changes in his point of view and faith journey.  I’m probably also seeing things that he might not have.  But he might have. He most certainly is now, because I know for a fact he’s with me every step I take.  I honestly feel his presence. He laughs at my awkwardness and smiles with pride when I walk, despite my ignorance and naivete, into unfamiliar places with the pilgrim zeal that he had.

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john pavlovitz

Stuff That Needs To Be Said

dogtorbill

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

Movin' it with Michelle

Running, Recipes, and Real life adventures!

this is... The Neighborhood

the Story within the Story

gidivet camino

learning the unforced rhythms of grace

The Cereal Bowl

Taking life one spoonful at a time

St. Val the Eccentric

Contemplative musings on life and faith from a creative original

howsyourlovelife

Improving my love of life.... through loving God, self and others

Thinking Out Loud

Children Matter

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