Archive for June, 2009

Short Thoughts on Morocco: Our Hosts

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Two weeks ago my primary connection, my primary understanding, of the nation of Morocco involved the Showalters. My family, one other family, and the Showalters have met at least once a year over pretty much all of my life. Phil and Twila Weber, my parents and Jon and Dawn are close college friends and began the tradition before my birth. For a few summer days, one family takes its turn to host the other two for warm fellowship and encouragement. Some of my best childhood memories are from these gatherings. My visit to Fez, Morocco, last week was the most memorable experience yet with this close family.

Around the end of last summer, the Jon and Dawn Showalter became expatriates in Morocco with their four sons. This trip allowed me the opportunity to see them for the first time since then and in their new home. Like the traditional gatherings I’ve experienced with their family, they generously offered their home, their resources, and their understanding with compassion and warmth. It was a blessing to experience such a foreign, unfamiliar part of the world under the guidance of close, trusted friends. They provided vital tips for exploring Fez that proved essential in a city with so much to offer tourists, both rewarding opportunities and hazardous ones. I was able to connect with and understand much more about Morocco by sharing a little of the Showalters’ lives.

While the week we spent with them may not have been truly representative of their normal, everyday lives in Morocco, I loved joining them in places where they’ve spent much of their time. Although Jon and Dawn had no language classes that week, they explained much as we walked the streets of Fez. Thursday was the boys’ last day in school but I was able to visit their classmates and the buildings where they have studied this past year. We attended their international church and had wonderful conversations with other attendees, the Showalters’ close friends. We shared delicious, local meals lovingly prepared by Dawn. (Thanks again!) We explored the Medina and enjoyed tasty local treats. (read: delicious 12 cent ice cream cones) I even joined their weekly traditions of frisbee and basketball games and released some pent up energy. Like so many people along this journey, the Showalters graciously opened their home and lives to four young men, allowing us to share with them in their wonderfully unique lives. It was a blessing which I have begun to pray that I have the opportunities to pass along.

Four dudes and the food

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

This past week I (Seth) have had the joyous privilege of hanging out with Matt, David, and the Daniels (whom I will refer to as “the dudes”). It’s been a blast showing them some of the sites in Fes, and also making a memorable trip to the Sahara with them. I will recall some of the good times we had from my point of view.

About 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, I answered the phone to the familiar sound of Matt’s voice and was informed that they were driving into Fes. I met them at McDonalds, the designated rendezvous point, and directed them to our house. After a rigorous game of Ultimate Frisbee, we spent the evening catching up on the details of their trip, swapping stories, and planning out their schedule for their week in Morocco.

Friday morning, my dad, Jesse, the dudes, and I set off for the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis. It was a scorching day to be outside as demonstrated by the distinct sunburn lines displayed on Dan Shenk’s arms and neck by the end of the day. Despite the heat, we had an enjoyable time wandering through and clambering over the heaps of rock and marble. We also had the privilege of running into a professor of archeology at Oxford who was a bottomless pit of information about the ruins and the stories and traditions behind them. After leaving Volubilis we stopped in a small town on the way back to Fes where we ate a scrumptious lunch of sardine sandwiches and pop. We then returned home where we spread out to various couches and beds where we rested our tired bodies.

At 8:00 on Saturday morning Matt and Dan Shenk joined Joel and I and some other Fessie men in our weekly game of basketball. We had some intense games featuring old farts vs. young bucks until the beating sun stole all our energy and we were forced to retire to our house for a filling omelet meal.

On Sunday, which happened to be Father’s Day, we attended the International Church of Fes. Afterwards we drove up a mountain just outside of Fes, where we enjoyed a delicious Father’s Day picnic lunch. Following the picnic, we returned to the house and spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging around and relaxing. That evening we took a walk along Hassan II, the name of the main street in Fes and also of the previous king of Morocco. There was a fun night atmosphere along the street which was packed with hundreds of people milling around and enjoying the cool night air. We enjoyed watching the two large fountains at either end of Hassan II, as well as playing with a bouncy blue balloon bought by my dad from a street vendor. After several hours of strolling along the street we returned home to get a good night of rest for the looming adventures of the next day.

We awoke on Monday morning, and after eating breakfast, all five of us piled into the dudes’ beast of a car and cavorted off towards the Sahara and the adventures it held. We made stellar time on our trip, making only a couple bathroom stops and also a quick dip in a gorgeous lake flanked by mountains. After 6 or 7 hours of driving, we arrived at the Casbah Tizimi Hotel where we left the car for the remainder of the trip out to the desert. We were picked up at the hotel by a 4X4 SUV which was our mode of transport through the rather rough terrain following the hotel. The 4X4 took us out to an Auberge (inn) that sits right on the edge of the swirling mass of sand dunes that is the desert. After a hot afternoon in the car we were all ready to cool off, so we jumped into the sparkling pool at the Auberge and splashed around to our heart’s content.

At six o’clock we were notified that our camels were ready for us, so we toweled off and hopped on our camels for the ride out the encampment where we stayed the night. A little while into the 1 ½ hour trek the wind began to pick up, and soon Matt and I were forced to put our shirts back on because of the vicious sand stinging our bare backs. We eventually reached the campsite, a large circle of cloth tents, in one piece and were escorted to a Berber tent where we were protected from the harsh weather and could sit around and relax while our supper was being prepared. In about an hour, our supper of vegetables and meat was served to us much to the delight of our hungry stomachs. After letting our food and the weather settle, Matt and I decided to try sand boarding using snowboards provided by the camp. We climbed partway up a dune, and started boarding down, but soon discovered that the boards were definitely only for use on snow, judging by the very un-exhilarating speeds at which we traveled down the dune. Tired out by our long day of driving and camel riding, we soon headed for bed. All of us, with the exception of Dan Ziegler, decided to spend to take our bed mats outside of the tent and sleep under the stars (all three that were visible that night) in the cool night air. After being briefly interrupted by a small bout of rain, we dozed off and slept peacefully through the night.

The next morning we were woken up at 6:30 and served a simple breakfast, and then it was back on the camel’s backs. We plodded back to the Auberge in beautiful weather, a contrast to the previous evening’s sandstorm. Matt and I enjoyed trying various stunts on the backs of our camels, including standing up in the saddle without any hands, and somehow managing to not fall off. After arriving back at the Auberge, we all jumped in the pool and then sat in or around the pool waiting for our ride back to the hotel where the car was waiting. At 11 o’clock our ride arrived, and we returned to the hotel, picked up the car, and were on our way back to Fes. We had a fairly uneventful ride home and made good time. We went straight to the Medina upon our arrival in Fes, where the dudes made some final purchases, and we enjoyed chatting with some of the vendors and Medina denizens. Following the Medina, we hit up a DVD store where nearly any DVD is available for 10 Dirhams ($1.24). We then returned home where we ate a late supper and sat around talking for the rest of the evening.

Ferry to Fez, Friends, and Frisbee

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

We awoke the morning of the 17th, accompanied by the figures of large beasts looming out of the mist. After some corn flakes and left the cow pasture. Ten minutes later we pulled into a terminal in the port town of Tarifa, about an hour before our ferry’s scheduled departure.

After presenting our passports and paperwork, we began detaching the roof box from the Passat. To avoid the additional €30 fee for vehicles taller than 2.5 meters, we moved the roof box into the car, snug inside the cavity formed by folding the seats and jostling the food, sleeping bags, and backpacks. David and I jumped atop the box, contorting ourselves into the meager remaining space. Their seats pushed forward, Ziegler hugged the steering wheel and Shenk kneed the dash. We must have looked comical to the border guards: four young men crammed with their earthly possessions into a vehicle like a band of migrants or gypsies.

We parked and were on one more boat. We did not see much of the Strait of Gibralter, spending most of the 45 minute trip queued to have our boarding tickets approved and passports stamped. The inefficiency of having a single desk serve all the boat’s passengers amused me. By the time we disembarked, the line to the desk still stretched half the ferry’s length. It was no cabaret show or disco club. We docked in Africa and began made small talk with two Moroccan men in car alongside us in the ship’s cargo hold. They offered their support for David Beckham and Barack Obama until we entered the border checkpoint.

A steady stream of men “welcomed” us to Morocco, each expecting money for their trouble. Over the next hour and a half we found the necessary vehicle tax documentation, lost track of that documentation, payed a man a couple Euro to return our passports, offered another man some cigarettes (that we had had found in Amsterdam), and refused to bribe several other men. Of the latter group, one man was ambiguously identified only by a name tag that read “2007.” We spent most of that time trapped in our car, waiting for anyone to gesture us 10 feet further.

After the final gesture out of the checkpoint, we drove a bit into Tangier and repositioned the roof box. David left to use an ATM around the corner for local currency, dirhams. Fifteen minutes later he reappeared with a local man, money, a Moroccan map, and a story of following the man to three different ATM machines around the city.

A little driving south and we made it to Fez in around 6 hours. We chose the scenic route and witnessed authentic Moroccan life in boys playing soccer outside rural villages and ridiculously overloaded straw trucks bouncing over crater-like potholes. Just outside the city we found a mo-ped operator more than happy to guide us into Fez’s medina, the old town, and specifically a hotel. Apparently, these guys target tourists to recruit business for hotels and shops for a cut of the profits. This advertising method seems quite effective for tourists wandering a completely foreign city. Our friend finally understood that we weren’t interested in a hotel but not before leading us to the city’s single McDonald’s, our designated meeting place with the Showalters. We looked around the nicest Micky-D’s I’d ever seen, until Seth and Peter Jon arrived on foot and rode with us back to their house.

It was an exuberant reunion to be welcomed by the entire Showalter family outside their apartment building. Each of us studied under Jon in at least one Rosedale class, and my family and I have close ties with their family. We lugged a few suitcases to apartment 8 before Jon drove Shenk, Ziegler, me, and the boys to a nearby dirt lot to join an Ultimate frisbee game with both children of English expats and Moroccan youths. A young man, a member of a university Ultimate team, had introduced the sport several years ago. The sport gained popularity despite the man’s return to the States, until now when a group plays once a week. The three Rovers greatly enjoyed refreshing exercise and teamwork. The group even taught us a new, more exciting way to play. Instead of stopping play to throw off to the other team after a score, they would never stop, reversing directions after scoring bur having the length of the field to drive. The game was too fast-paced for us to pay much attention to things like my skinned knees from the lot’s pebbles and Ziegler’s torn blister from running barefoot. We played numerous, exhilarating matches until returning to the Showalter’s, tired but satisfied. We had made it to Africa.


First Stop in Granada

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

We left Barcelona Sunday night and drove for a while. We didn’t know what the quality of roads would be down to Tarifa—where our ferry departed Wednesday morning—so we decided to give ourselves plenty of time to cover the 1200 kilometers. Since I [david] usually wake up first in the morning, I slept in the driver’s seat, and the next morning I woke up and drove while the others slept. It turns out that the roads are good all the way across Spain, so we made very good time. We stopped south of Valencia to replenish our food reservoirs and ate some egg sandwiches at a rest stop shortly thereafter. While there, I helped push start a car that belonged to a Muslim who had stopped. I didn’t think that I the first car that I would push-start on this trip would belong to someone else (but am thankful that it is the case).

After lunch we looked at a map and determined that we could make it to Granada—where we have friends—by that evening, so we continued making good time across Spain. That afternoon it got quite hot—it topped 100°—which is not the most comfortable in a car without air conditioning, but we figured that we need to get used to it because it won’t get cooler for quite a while. We also enjoyed passing vehicles with huge amounts of stuff packed on top of their cars and vans. We looked like we were travelling lightly compared to many of the other cars on the road.

We made it to Granada by early evening and tried to get a hold of Kevin and Wendy Mayer (our friends from back home), but they were not answering their phones. We found their apartment building at that same moment Kevin called us, so we let him know we were not only in Granada; we were in front of his house. We had given Kevin and Wendy a warning that we might swing by Tuesday afternoon to pick up some documentation for our car before heading to Morocco, but we didn’t prepare them at all for a Monday evening arrival. Nonetheless, they welcomed us and explained that they had no room in their house because they were already hosting Holly Yoder and Debbie and Rachel Yutzy who are travelling Europe for two months. We went to Rosedale Bible College with Holly (Kevin worked there at the same time), and Matt is second cousins with the Yutzys, so we saw more familiar faces in Granada than we were expecting. Kevin called up Pablo and Judy Kaufman (Pablo used to be my pastor back in Ohio), who had room and were very willing to let us stay at their place.

That evening we went to a hill that overlooks the Alhambra and is a popular spot for the locals to mingle and smoke various things. We then walked back through town and Kevin treated us to shawarmas—a popular street sandwich in Granada, before heading back to their place. We then walked to Pablo and Judy’s apartment where we spent the night.

In the morning Pablo and Judy served us gallo pinto with eggs (since we aren’t able to make it to Central America on this trip, it was good to get at least one Latino breakfast), mixed fruit, toast, orange juice, cherries, and café con leche. Delicious. After breakfast Pablo took us down to the Cathedral, where we were to meet Kevin and the young lady travelers. Pablo introduced us to the old cobbler who works next to their apartment. He explained who we are and what we are doing, at which point the cobbler shook his head and commented that he had never even left the state of Granada and never wants to. He did say that he will donate his organs when he dies, so after he is dead parts of him will travel the world.

We met the Delaware girls (what I will call them from now on, since they reside in “The First State”) and first went to the Royal Chapel which is the final resting place for Ferdinand and Isabella the famous monarchs of Spain who set up their capital in Granada. We especially noted how Isabella’s pillow is sunk down extra far on her marble sculpture due to her extremely big brain which is really heavy. We also studied a picture in a side room which pictured a crucified Jesus and Judas appearing through a wall. It was both disturbingly odd yet extremely fascinating.

We next went to the Cathedral were impressed with the fake candles that were actually LED candles. You drop in a coin and a corresponding number of candles light. We also saw a sculpture of James the Moor slayer trampling a Muslim with his horse. Onward Christian soldiers. Let them feel the power of Jesus’ love coursing through the horse hooves.

We then went back to the Mayer’s house and ate a wonderful late chicken kabob lunch complemented with rice, bread, and salad before having a desert of chocolate-covered strawberries and frozen cookies. After lunch we talked for several hours before heading down to Tarifa where our ferry was to leave the next morning. We were extremely grateful for all the wonderful food that we were served and Pablo’s giving us a place to sleep on such a short notice. I was thankful that we were able to spend some time in Granada before heading down to Morocco because Pablo and Judy will not be in Granada when we come back through after we visit Morocco.

david miller

The Streets of Barcelona

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

We arrived in Barcelona on the evening of Saturday, June the 13th. Dan had been in the city a few years earlier and knew what to see. We began by searching for a hilltop park where dan remembered we could see the city spread beneath us. Barcelona’s back streets are an adventure; winding and narrow, with stop lights where you least expect them, abrupt dead ends and even more abrupt transitions from two way to one way streets, they make it a nightmare to find your way, especially if you don’t know where you are going. We finally found the park after a dead end at the top of a very steep hill and several excursions in the wrong direction down one way roads. By then it was dark and we hiked to the hilltop to see the city at night, which was quite spectacular. We stayed up very late that evening, posting blogs and searching for directions to Barcelona’s mennonite church.

The next day we managed to find our way to the church using three different maps, only one of which (Googlemaps) had the church on it. The congregation was very welcoming of the foreigners in their midst, even providing an interpreter for the sermon, which was about Christian relationships. Sunday afternoon we dedicated to exploring Barcelona on foot. We began with Güell Park, designed by the famous Antoni Gaudi. It was teeming with people and offered an excellent combination of nature and Gaudi’s nature-inspired structures. We then walked through Barcelona’s brick Arc de Triumph into the city park which had a magnificent fountain and sprawling lawns, which were shaded by trees and filled with people relaxing on the hot Sunday afternoon.

Next we walked to the port where countless mored sailboats gave the illusion of a towering wheat field. We picked out the type of yacht we will use for our next trip; sailing around the world with our wives. From the port we walked to the cathedral that is the seat of the bishop of Barcelona. A crowd packed the courtyard, at the end of which a stage with many very important catholics on it had been erected. The day was fading fast, however, and we hurried to see the centerpiece of our little tour; Le Sangrada Familia.

Sangrada Familia is one of the world’s most magnificent construction zones. Gaudi designed the partially complete building, but died before it was complete. I may do the same because the massive cathedral’s construction is funded only by tours of its already impressive structure. Sangrada Familia combines the classical cathedral motif with Gaudi’s modernist, new age design. The statues and sculptures are stylized, almost cartoonish, yet uniquely touching in their portrayal of christian stories and themes. The architecture is in keeping with Gaudi’s trademark organic designs, yet soars to the sky like a traditional cathedral. Eighteen spires are planned (Only eight have been completed thus far) and a massive tower will be built at the junction of the cross-shaped (Also traditional) floor plan. If it is finished before I die it would be worth returning to Spain just to see it. It is already worth seeing if you are anywhere near the area. The projected completion is in 2025.

By the time we found our car again we were sore, sweaty, and tired. We drove to the home stadium of Barcelona’s soccer team which won the 2009 Champion’s League final, a fact which several huge posters hung from the stadium walls made sure we remembered. As dusk fell around us we made our way out of the city to find a place to sleep before our drive to Granada the next day. We took a detour to watch and record a magnificent water show taking place in front of the palace. It was a spellbinding spectacle of splashing space utilizing spiced-up spotlights and spontaneous spouts of sprinkling spray to speculatively spell the spectacular spiel of spiffy speakers. In other words, a variable jet fountain and colored lights were programed in time to classical music. It was a fitting conclusion to our stay in a lively city of so much colorful and varying culture. Next up was Granada and people who once lived only a few minutes away from home.

Daniel Shenk

A Giant of a Bridge

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

We took a slight detour on our way south on Wednesday (12/6) to visit the world’s largest bridge, The Millau Viaduct. The bridge is spectacular, spanning the Tarn river valley in southwest France. It really looks as though the highway just took off and flew over this yawning valley supported by a few spindly pillars.

The bridge was designed by the British architect and Baron Norman Foster who also designed the “Gherkin” we saw in London, the new dome of the Reichstag in Berlin, the Hauptbahnhof roof and cupola in Dresden, all of which we have seen in the past few weeks. We hadn’t planned this to be a Norman Foster tour, but it’s turning in to one.

After observing the bridge for a while and experimenting with the durability of our Nalgenes (we weren’t able to throw them off the bridge so we soccer dribbled them down the hillside). Then, we crossed the amazing viaduct, arriving at the other side €6 poorer, but spiritually uplifted.

We then drove south through Clermont to the Mediterranean where, according to Matt, we passed “a foul bathroom and barbecuing locals, to stroll the shore. The Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean in 12 days. Whew.”

After an hour or so at the French Mediterranean beach, we headed west toward Andorra. After the highways petered out at the edge of the Pyrenees, we spent hours wending our ways through the mountains toward the tiny nation. Although none of us got sick and we enjoyed the views quite a bit–until it got dark–we did eventually tire of the switchbacks and their toll on our brakes.

We rolled into Andorra that night, stopped at a parking lot just outside of town and went to sleep.

The next morning (13/6) we awoke and I proposed that we do some work on the car. The rest agreed after a bit of democratic discussion and we set at it. Matt set to work figuring out our problems with the windshield-wiper-fluid system that caused our fluid to drain out under the bumper and caused an annoying warning light to reside constantly on our dashboard.

Dan and David took apart the passengers side rear door where the window hasn’t worked since we got the car. I went back and forth between the two projects offering advice, encouragements, and random statements. I also read the manual and our Haynes book comparing parts and instructions for all projects.

Matt fixed his problem first when he discovered a detached hose intended to lead to the headlight-cleaners–which have never worked. Our windshield-wiper-fuild was filled to the brim and it didn’t leak! Our rear and headlight sprayers still didn’t work, but those were not real problems.

The door was a bit trickier, but with the help of a zip-tie David had found on the sidewalk somewhere along the way they finished their job and everything seemed to be working!

Dan and I then set to trying to open the drivers-side rear door which had been irrevocably locked since before we got the car. While we slowly and painfully removed piece-by-piece the paneling of the door with the door closed, Matt and David collected some water from a local stream and made a soup (after boiling the water for 5 minutes, of course). Dan and I eventually deemed the door irreparable at least with the tools we had and went to get some cold cokes (it was getting quite warm) in a nearby restaurant filled with catalan-speakers and attached to a tennis court.

After enjoying one of David and Matt’s first soups (I had done most of the cooking except a few breakfasts and some couscous up until that point) we drove around Andorra la Villa, found it to be mainly a shopping mall and headed toward Barcelona.

On the way to Barcelona, we enjoyed the view from the Pyrenees once again, but had to stop at one point when our brakes began to smoke. They cooled and we took off again, even more gingerly this time. After a few hours we made it to the bottom and made our way into the city of Gaudi.

Daniel R. Ziegler

Mennoniting Our Way to the Mediterranean

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Thursday afternoon (11th) we called the family we had found in our copy of the Mennonite Your Way book. Before the trip, David ordered the newest European edition of families willing to provide sleeping arrangements for travelers through their area. The MYW people sent the older version (2006-2008) until they could send the newest, published a month after we left. Currently, the 2009 edition is sitting in Rosedale somewhere. We had found the Wheelers from outside Lyons the most willing of the six French families listed. We made good time from Bern and arrived around 6, the time we had given them over the phone. Andre and Ruth warmly welcomed us to their home. After introductions and parking the Passat in their property, we sat and shared our backgrounds and Kefir.

None of us had heard of this drink and were fascinated by the liquid which appeared to be lemonade. Instead, it was a bi-product of a bacterial ecosystem. Kefir grains are self-contianed micro-ecosystems of bacteria living in a symbiotic relationship to process and ferment sugars. The drink is this fermented sugar water, a healthy drink as a bacterial live culture like acidophilus in yogurt and for it half a proof of alcohol. The drink is like friendship bread in that these grains are not commercially available and the growth from their fermentation can be shared to start new colonies. The Wheelers described the process, first discovered by a doctor in the Caucasus mountains, as the combination of the Kefir seed, sugar water, a lemon for flavor, and a fig. The fig, when it expands enough with water to float, signals the adequate time for the fermenting process. All four of us enjoyed the refreshing drink as we learned of their French Bretheren background.

We moved the conversation inside for a hearty meal of tomatoes, potatoes, and ham. By then the family had gathered, Jean David from the university where is was studying engineering, Jonathan from a friend’s, and Timothy, the youngest. We learned that most of the information regarding the Wheelers in the MYW book was incorrect and that they had not ever actually requested to be included. They had sent a letter of interest years earlier and we soon surprised when they found a book in the mail, containing their names and they apparently attended a French Reformed church and also spoke Spanish. They were, nevertheless, pleased we could stay with them. We explained how we met and decided to try this trip, Andre interpreting for the curious boys. After a lovely conversation, some time to unwind, a washed load of clothes, and much needed showers, we stretched in beds after weeks of sleeping in the car or on the ground. Lovely.

The next morning, I woke early (for me) and worked on catching up with email and photos on Flickr until the guys began to stir. Andre, a cook for a school, and the boys, themselves in school, had already left the house, so I worked for an hour until eating a traditional French breakfast of baguettes and delicious jams. A little after our planned 10 a.m. departure time, we each filled out the Wheelers’ guest book and hit the road.