A day-trip to Tangiers, Morocco

I had no idea what to expect in Tangiers. I hadn’t planned to go there, and worse, I had done no research on it. At first, it was a lark to check another continent off our bucket list, the mysterious Africa. But it became so much more.

Our guide, Danny, described the day’s unfolding as we took the 1.5 hour bus trip to the Port of Tarifa from Marbella. Tangiers is roughly divided into three parts: the modern city, the medina which is the old city, and the Kasbah, the walled fort on top of the highest hill in the medina. We’d be visiting all three.

We had multiple checkpoints on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, four stamps on our passports by the end of the day, and several glass plated booths from which officials scrutinized us. But Danny made those transitions easy; he is well known at each point, because he makes this trip several times a week. If all the checkpoints hadn’t convinced us we were in a different country, that first view of Tangiers from the port made it clear. Street signs were in Arabic and French, the two official languages of Morocco, and a Minaret was even at the port.

Here we met our local guide, Abbey. He wore the traditional djellaba, but also wore a colorful pair of socks with his shoes, apparently his trademark. Both Danny and Abbey made us feel safe, even in the medina markets where pesky street vendors will not take no for an answer.

As a way to ease us into this radically new environment, we took a mini-bus to tour the rich region of the city, up in the hills. Malcolm Forbes owned a palatial estate up here, and many others who never wanted to be named. In ancient times, it was a strategic Berber town, holding the coveted African Gate of the Straight of Gibraltar. They were ruled by many foreign powers over the years, gaining independence in the 1950s. In 1923, foreign colonial powers gave it an international status. This city has been a place of intrigue, spies, shadow diplomacy and laundered money, for a long time.

Our first stop was a park where several locals had brought camels. Did we want to ride one? Are they kidding? Heck yes! You don’t appreciate how big these animals are until you need a two-step ladder to get on. Experiencing the camel getting up and down again were the scariest parts. Being led around for a walk was similar to riding a horse except no reins – only a stump-like thing on the saddle, and no stirrups; the feet just dangle.

We also had a photo-op with a baby camel. His wool was so soft, especially along the neck. The smell of the camels lingered a bit on our clothing, but who cares? This is Tangiers!

We continued our driving tour. Just before we arrived at the Kasbah, a funeral procession overtook our stopped bus. The compatriots of the dead man carried his sheet-wrapped body above their heads, chanting as they streamed past us. Stunned, we remained quiet for a few moments, each with our own thoughts. A few minutes later we arrived at the Bab Gate of the Kasbah, the walled fort on the hill, and the beginning of the walking tour. Abbey pointed out the characteristic Muslim shape of the gate, one of several into the Kasbah.

One enterprising person had set up an orange juice stand not too far inside the gate, and for a moment, it took me back home to kids’ Kool-Aid stands. But these drinks came from freshly squeezed oranges. The water likely came from a nearby fountain. Abbey told us that some people here did not have running water and had to use the public fountains for all their water needs. Some did not have electricity either.

Much of the Kasbah was a labyrinth of narrow passageways full of turns and steps. In the working-class neighborhoods, interesting doors and windows overlooked the passage. Colorful tiles covered steps into homes and even the underside of flower ledges, and the occasional tree added shade.

In the poorer neighborhoods, shade came from the narrowness of the passageway and overhanging second-floor units. In some cases, these second-floor walls from apartments across the alley were so close that they virtually touched.

We were walking past a mosque just as the call to prayer, one of five every day, went out over the loudspeaker. While we could not enter the mosque, we could appreciate the beautiful tile work under the portico, especially the ceiling.

And then it was time to eat lunch just outside the Kasbah, on a restaurant terrace overlooking the city, beaches, the harbor and the Kasbah wall. Abbey urged us not to eat all the bread, because we had three full courses coming. But we could not help it.

The olive oil was the best I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot, given my last several weeks in Spain. The bread was freshly baked in a communal oven down the street. It came with a selection of local olives. The first course was a saffron-spiced soup – I ate every drop. The second course was shish-kebobs with salad and eggplant. I tried carrot juice as my drink and found it a perfect complement to the meal. The third course was spiced chicken and vegetables on couscous. Dessert was a pastry similar to baklava, and we finished it all off with mint tea. With the afternoon walk ahead of us, we were sure to burn off some of it.

Alcohol was not served at this restaurant, though it is available in other places, despite Islam being Morocco’s state religion. The Tangerians follow a more relaxed branch of Islam, and Muslims, Christians and Jews live peacefully together here. A Muslim man can still marry up to four wives there, but the first has to approve of the second and so on, and the man must prove that he can afford more than one wife.

Older men wear the djellaba but younger ones wear jeans. Women generally wear the head scarf and older ones wear a caftan, but the burqa is banned. Tourists are not expected to wear the head scarf, but modest clothing is prudent.

Throughout lunch we listened to Moroccan music playing inside the restaurant. The musicians were not shy about requesting tips, even as we passed by them on our way to the restroom. Just before dessert, a snake handler showed up. Some of our group gathered around, appreciatively clapping and gasping every time he dropped the snake and it started to slither toward their feet. I was safely standing behind the musicians.

But then he put his poisonous snake back into the bag and took out another, presumably not poisonous, offering to drape it around our necks. I hate snakes, even worms. But something drew me to the opportunity. I’ve never even touched a snake, so why not now, here in Morocco? The snake felt heavy on my neck as he draped it around. My daughter snapped the picture and then I was gladly out of there.

Our afternoon walk through the medina was the most interesting of the whole tour. Building colors were brighter than elsewhere in shades of blues and oranges, sometimes with murals. One mural showed the community baking oven, another people wearing traditional Berber dress. (Berbers are over 95% of the Moroccan population, though Tangiers has a heavy European population and influence.) Potted plants added greens and ceramic tiles could be any color.

We walked briskly through covered and uncovered vegetable and fresh herb markets. Abbey admonished us to stay together and Danny brought up the rear. So many things were in season and the photographer in all of us bogged down our little procession.

As we walked to the meat market, we saw a man walk in with a headless, gutted goat or young cow over his shoulders. Nearby were the breads and dates. The dates in the glass case must be special indeed.

But my favorite was the spice market. Dried spices, some ground, some whole, sat in open bags with pungent, fresh, tangy, green, peppery, even earthy aromas, some subtle, some powerful.

The other fascinating areas were the stands with olives. Having grown up in the Midwest, I knew very little about good olives, and still cannot consider myself educated. These appeared to be raw, uncured.

I was sad to leave the sensory stimulation of the food markets, but happily found an equally rich environment looking at silk yarns for embroidering and richly hued hand-tufted wool carpets. Perhaps next time I come, I can be persuaded to buy a magic carpet. They even make it easy by taking Euros and delivering “free,” even to Hawaiʻi.


For the rest of my Spanish adventure, see:

Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo,

In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca

Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain

Vibrant, whimsical, sensory-rich Barcelona

Semana Santa processions in Marbella

If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.

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Semana Santa processions in Marbella

After Barcelona, it is comforting to be in a small town once again. Marbella, on the Mediterranean Sea, was a village of 10,000 in the 1950s. Then the tourist/resort industry boomed and it is now 140,000 – still plenty small enough for my tastes. We were lucky enough to find accommodations in a small hotel during Holy Week. It was situated on Calle San Ramon, a street too small for cars. So the taxi dropped us off on the nearest main street, and we schlepped our luggage up the hill. The hotel location was worth the effort – only a block from what we had come here to see, the Semana Santa procession on the evening of Holy Thursday. Semana Santa is Holy Week, and in Spain is characterized by processions with men carrying large floats or thrones weighing up to 5 tons. I could have picked almost any town in Spain, but Marbella had a good recommendation for beachcombing, too.

After dropping off our large clunky room key with the lady at the hotel desk (an actual desk), we wandered around the old town – a labyrinth of tiny lanes, small open plazas with cafes, and shopping, my daughter’s favorite sport. The buildings of old Marbella are mostly white – blinding white in the strong sunshine. I was thankful for shade in the late afternoon.

Colorful tiles and potted plants adorned walls. A kitty wove her way among tourist feet and found her favorite napping spot right in the doorway of a local shop.

The Marbella website said the first procession started at 6 pm. The lady at the hotel desk reminded us that we were on Spanish time (much like Island Time back in Hawaii). So at 6:30 we walked to the street with the procession, and were surprised to see cars still driving up and down, and an open table right on the street at a café. We took it and ordered coffee and orange juice. By 7 pm the police arrived on motorcycles and began to close the street to traffic. Families began to mill around, though not exactly nailing a viewing spot. At 7:30 an older couple looking distressed searched for a place to sit at the café, and we offered them the two extra chairs at our table. They made for interesting companions: they spoke Spanish and German. My daughter, our only link, spoke a bit of ‘school’ Spanish. (“Ask them this.” “It’s too difficult. First I have to conjugate the verb to blah-blah tense and then…”) But we all made ourselves understood with hand gestures and shrugs. We pointed to our watches, then the street with a questioning “Cuando?” They shrugged.

About 8 pm we heard intermittent drumming. Now people were seriously lining the street. Our spot was near the reviewing stand, at the bottom of a hill. Each group in the procession would have the same structure. First to arrive were the penitents, people in long robes and pointed hats covering their faces, carrying lighted candles, and looking like the Ku Klux Klan. In centuries past, these would have been people walking the procession in prayer for their sins, yet remaining anonymous. These days, based on the height of the walkers, they appeared to be tweens and teens who volunteered for or were recruited for the procession.

The next group was the ladies in black, marching in high heels (!) and beautiful mantillas. Each procession was sponsored by a different fraternal brotherhood associated with different parishes in the town. The ladies were presumably the mothers or wives of the men who would be carrying the throne. Clerics accompanied by a young person with an incense burner followed the ladies and preceded the throne.

A parade leader in bare feet, carrying a cross, led them all. The penitents, mothers, and clerics came down the hill then stopped – for about 10 minutes. What was the hold-up? It soon became clear, as a band struck up music and the first throne appeared at the top of the hill.

This was a carefully choreographed walk, men packed together with their free hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. The throne swayed with the walking, the men carefully stepping together. Then, at a signal of a bell, they stood still and set the throne down while they took a rest. The whole procession stopped during this break.

Then with another bell signal, they hoisted the throne in unison. The band behind the throne was always playing while the throne was moving. The music has been especially composed for these processions.

First three thrones in the Holy Thursday Procession in Marbella, Spain


Fourth and Fifth Thrones in the Semana Santa Procession on Holy Thursday in Marbella, Spain

Then a gap, and we could see another fraternal order’s procession coming down the hill. There were five in all with the penitents, the mothers in black, the clerics, a child swinging the incense thurible, then the throne, and finally the band. Several thrones were decked out with a multitude of candles. It made me a bit nervous to see them swaying in time to the march. But the tweens and teens with candles made me even more nervous. By the grace of God, no one caught their hood on fire.

Each procession had a special twist to their performance. Several thrones included a man with a blindfold and barefooted; he only had the feel of the man’s shoulder in front of him to guide him. If he went down, I imagine the whole throne would go down. One group hoisted the support beams straight up, arms fully extended for about three feet of the procession route. One group included a small company of men with guns twirling. Some groups had the lead man in each row fold their arms instead of hanging onto the beams.

During sections of the procession, one or two men in front of the throne walked backwards, holding the jutting ends of the beams that sat on the shoulders of the men carrying the throne. They looked like they were trying to hold them back, which may have been true. If the throne ahead of them was too slow, they had their men sway in place. Some fraternal orders did a better job than others of having men of all the same height. Besides the aesthetic appeal, I’d think it would make the load even.

Procession Four had an overly enthusiastic thurible swinger. The little girl in charge of the incense went wild with her responsibilities – if they wanted smoke, she’d make sure they had plenty of it. While it was funny for the observers (even we were coughing as she passed by us), it could not have been pleasant for the men behind her.

The entire event took three hours, and we headed back to the hotel a bit after 11pm. But each of the groups made a full circuit around the city center and then processed back to their own church. I can only imagine how tired everyone was at the end – the penitents holding onto their masks and candles, the mothers in their high heels, the men carrying the weight of the throne, the band members carrying and playing their instruments.

I admire the Spanish people for keeping up the tradition of the centuries to carry it on for their children. During this Holy Thursday evening, I reflected on what would be happening back in the US.  A relatively recent way we have enriched the celebration of Holy Week in the Catholic Church is the priest washing parishioner’s feet on Holy Thursday, just as the Master did. I hope it is a tradition we can carry on for generations, just as the Spanish have done with Semana Santa Processions.


And what about the beachcombing? Oh YES!

For other essays on my Spanish adventure, see:

Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo,

In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca

Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain.

Vibrant. whimsical, sensory-rich Barcelona

If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.

Posted in Cats, kitties, enjoying other cultures, Honoring tradition, island time, learnng new things, travel as a transformation tool | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Vibrant, whimsical, sensory-rich Barcelona

I enjoyed Barcelona, in Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia. I prefer smaller towns, but the old section of this city feels very town-like, not a place with a population of 1.6 million. It is very walkable but don’t get too close to the street – buses and taxis whiz by within inches of your elbow. Luckily, it’s easy to find plazas and streets with only pedestrian traffic. On foot is the best way to see what the city offers – a whimsical sensory-rich vibe.

At the heart of that vibe is the architecture of Antoni Gaudi and his fellow Modernistas from the early 20th century, using new materials and structures. Gaudi was one of the first, and his style is unmistakable. Here’s a sampling.

The two photos on the right taken from Wikipedia.

The Casa Batlló home already existed when the owner, Josep Batlló, asked Gaudi to tear it down and build him a new one. He wanted something different, something new and risky. Gaudi convinced him to remodel the structure, which he completed in 1906. The roof looks like the back of a dragon and the railings look like masks to me, though they are supposed to “evoke the surface of a lake with water lilies.” I recommend seeing this in the morning when it will be lit by the sun from the front.

I love Gaudi’s fluidity with solid structures; Casa Milá, a few blocks down the street from Casa Batlló, is a great example. Also known as La Pedrera, or “open quarry” for its rough-hewn exterior, it was Gaudi’s last project on a residence; he completed it in 1910.

Park Guell started out as a business venture by Count Eusibi Guell for the development of luxury houses within a park setting. Gaudi was the architect. The business venture failed, and Guell donated the site to the city. But before that occurred, Gaudi designed a few buildings and created the infrastructure for the roads to service the houses.

The latter showed off his ability to unite artificial structures with the nature around them by raising the roads and using tree-like forms to support them. This was radically new in the early 20th century. He even incorporated bird nests into the structures.

But Gaudi’s greatest work remains the Sagrada Família, the minor basilica of the Church of the Holy Family. He began work on the church, already under construction in 1883, and made it his own. He spent the last part of his life dedicated to this work; it is still not completed and was only consecrated as a minor basilica in 2010.

Along with the cool architecture, or maybe because of it, street artists add to the whimsical vibe.

Then there’s the sensory stimulation of the fresh markets. It hits you in the eye, nose, mouth, even ears. In the din of the marketplace, you will hear Catalan, the co-official language of Catalonia, alongside Spanish.

And choices! I’ve never seen such beautiful Easter eggs, and I never saw a market that sold ostrich eggs before this. Oh, and the Tortilla Española! It’d the Spanish version of an omelet with onion and potatoes, but so much better. If you don’t know how to make them, you can buy them ready-made.

And when you are worn out from the sensory overload of this vibrant city, there’s always a quiet café where you can escape to enjoy a café con leche. Or duck into a cool dark pastry shop and indulge at a little table in the back. We even found a rooftop garden for freshly-squeezed orange juice.

If you prefer sun, find a plaza and enjoy the street musicians along with sangria. There’s a spot for everyone’s kind of relaxation in Barcelona.

It looks like I’ll be going back to Barcelona: I drank from the Font de Canaletes on Las Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian boulevard in the heart of the city. There’s a legend that if you drink from that fountain, you will fall in love with the city and return. Yes, definitely.


For other essays from my trip to Spain, see:

Roman graves in the heart of Barcelona’s old town

Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo

In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca

Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain

Semana Santa processions in Marbella

If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.

Posted in enjoying other cultures, travel as a transformation tool | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain

The pleasures of traveling include exposure to new foods, drinks, and customs. I had some exceptional opportunities in tiny La Alberca, Spain, and jumped at them. For example, one evening, we went to a celebration involving the making of a specialty drink made in Galicia, an autonomous region in the northwest of Spain that maintains its own language and traditions.

In Galicia, locals have been making orujo, an artisanal clear brandy, since the 16th century. They call it aguardiente or firewater (for good reason). It’s made by distilling the remains of pressed grapes, seeds and stems left over from making wine. Using a copper still, they create the alcoholic drink that is 50% or 100 proof and sometimes way higher, especially the ojuro from secret family recipes.

Orujo is similar to grappa in Italy, a drink that curled my hair and toes when I tried it in Venice a couple years ago.

Photo by Julian Trinchet Romero

So I was a bit leery about drinking this local version. Luckily, one does not have to drink ojuro straight. From this clear alcohol, Galicians make a drink called queimada. They mix the alcohol with sugar, lemon, coffee beans, cinnamon stick and perhaps some fruit, and set it afire to burn off a bit of the alcohol. The process I witnessed took about 15 minutes, with continual stirring in a large pot (traditionally the pot is clay or a hollow pumpkin). It is important to lift the flaming liquid with a ladle and let it fall back into the pot at some distance, flaming all the way. This is best seen at night with the lights off.

As if making the queimada wasn’t enough ceremony, the tradition includes reciting an incantation so that the brew bestows special powers on the drinkers to keep away witches who might harm them. In a novel twist on this Galician tradition, we conjured the witches – so much more fun. Note that scholars differ on the origin of the connection of making queimada with the incantation. Some say it goes back to Galician Celtic roots; other far less romantic scholars, claim it originated in the 1950s.

Photo by Julian Trinchet Romero.

This tradition is definitely one I could get behind. Unlike the grappa, this drink was quite tasty, and I love the necessity for night and fire to make it. For a recipe, see this or this.

Of course the La Alberca experience was not all drinking. There was plenty of eating as well, and nothing better than the famous Iberian ham, or jamón ibérico, from the local black pigs. This ham is like no other, and I was determined to buy some. My compatriots said, “Don’t wait; buy it here, because the pigs are raised in this region.” During our group tour of La Alberca, I found a butcher shop. The ceiling was full of legs from the famous black Iberian pig, each with a little plastic cone at the bottom to catch any liquid still discharging from the curing ham.

But I can’t speak Spanish, so I took one of my new friends with me and he kindly translated. One of the legs was set up in the holder made especially for this, a jamonero. Apparently, cutting this ham is an art, where an expert can obtain seven different flavors, just by the cut. The butcher told Jose that it costs 79€/kilo, about $38/lb. I requested a quarter kilo. He nodded, but must finish his current task first. Everything in its own time. On a large butcher block, he chopped through pork ribs with a cleaver, a satisfying rhythmic smack, smack, smack filling the little shop. A local homemaker rushed in, and he paused long enough to hand her a prearranged package full of different cuts of meat wrapped in paper.

Finally he moved to the jamonero, and began the task of cutting the leg. I can have it wrapped in paper if I plan to eat it now. But I requested it to be vacuum packed, so that I can share it with my daughter later in this trip. He handed me a piece for tasting. It’s like no ham I have had.

Photo of black Iberian pig obtained from Wikipedia.

Historians believe that the Phoenicians brought the first pigs to the Iberian Peninsula. Once here, the pigs interbred with wild boars, thus their color. The distinctive taste of the Iberian ham comes from the pig’s diet of acorns. They are rated based on the percentage of their diet that is acorns and whether they are pure-bred black pigs. To obtain a good rating, the pig must eat at least 50% acorns, up to 100%. One sees large grassy pastures of carefully spaced Holm oak trees in the countryside around La Alberca where they eat. It takes about a hectare (2.5 acres) of pasture to raise one pig. Whole legs can cost €200 to €2000 and more.

While the butcher arranged the ham slices on the foiled cardboard, I looked at the other products in his chilled cases. I decided to purchase a hard cheese made from sheep, something I’d not yet tried. Sheep cheese is very common in Spain. Tasting it later, I found it to be pungent and very good, somewhat like the goat cheese I buy at the Hāmākua Harvest Farmers Market back home.

We rejoined our group and walk to one of the ancient tapas bars in town, with its medieval Spanish bar customs. An expert ham slicer carved one of the specialty Iberian hams for us to taste. Done properly, you can see through the slice, as with his. After ample plates made their way around the group, he offered to show us how to cut the ham and I volunteered. The expert guided my cutting hand, but even with his help, I could not see through my slice (oh well, more to eat!).

Then they offered a bota drinking demo with a chance to try it. The bota is a leather bag for wine. I learned about this tradition among peasants and sports fans in the novels I read to prepare for this trip. They pass the bag around, so it’s not polite to put your lips on the neck. The idea is to squirt the wine directly into your mouth. The further away from your mouth you hold the bag, the more expert you look. Of course, the experts don’t wear towels to protect their clothing.

As for other food, if you find yourself in Spain, you must also try paella, the famous rice dish. While paella may seem to be the national dish of Spain, it is actually a regional dish from Valencia. None-the-less, it is on the menu in many places. I had it several times and plan to continue sampling, though the prettiest so far is the dish for two I shared with my daughter in Barcelona.

I can also say I loved every soup I’ve had so far in Spain, about 15 varieties. The one pictured is Spanish onion soup, far heartier and thicker than the brothy French version. Sometimes the chef drizzles olive oil on it – yum. And I haven’t even tried the gazpacho yet!

So here’s to new traditions, new foods and new drinks. Oh, I almost forgot: try the empanadas, and the tapas, and the churros with chocolate dipping sauce, and the sangria . . . Salud!


I thank Julian Trinchet Romero, for his permission to publish his photos.

For information on how to visit this region of Spain with free lodging and meals, see Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo.

For more insights on La Alberca, see In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca.

For the rest of my adventure in Spain, see:

Vibrant. whimsical, sensory-rich Barcelona

Semana Santa processions in Marbella


If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.

Posted in eating, enjoying other cultures, Honoring tradition, learnng new things, living full out, Small town life, Travel, travel as a transformation tool | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca

Imagine yourself on cobblestone streets surrounded by three story buildings constructed in the 14th through 16th centuries. An older man rides past on a donkey. Two abuellas carefully pick their way along the cobbles heading to market, chatting softly in Spanish. Shopkeepers begin to open their tiny shops, moving merchandise outside the old heavy doors, and carefully arrange their wares.

There’s no sign of a fast-food restaurant or supermarket, much less a big box store. Nor will there ever be such a thing here, because it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1940, Spain’s first. Every change to the buildings, every repair, must maintain the town’s historical look. It’s evident in the care a man takes to remove paint from a second-floor door along the main plaza.

This is La Alberca, a small village (population 1105) in western Spain. It sits 45 miles east of Portugal and 170 miles west of Madrid on the northern slopes of La Sierra de Francia.

The Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, runs through the village along the southern route. At one time pilgrims got their passport stamped in a tiny hermitage on the edge of town. These days the pilgrims come to the central plaza (Plaza Mayor) and stop at the tavern, the El Porrón, for the stamp. It’s next to the village jail. You can see the symbol of the pilgrimage at the bottom of the column, a shell.

At this hour (10:30ish) the main plaza is near empty except for delivery trucks, the only vehicles plus police and resident’s cars (though we didn’t see any) allowed on these streets. A couple of vendors set up tables to sell almonds, honey, and other local products. They offer samples and I try and buy crunchy sweet-coated almonds.

We are visiting in late March and spring has not yet arrived except for the presence of a few spring wildflowers. In summer, every balcony on the plaza will hold multiple planters filled with colorful flowers and the arcades below will provide shade from the sun; I can imagine it will be glorious.

Our guide, Sam, points out that the buildings have a French look: half-timber houses with rocks filling in between the timbers. The more refined have a plaster coating. It is definitely not the sturdy stone buildings of the rest of Spain. This came about because in the eleventh century, Spanish King Alfonso IX married off a relative, Doña Urraca, daughter of King Alfonso VI, to a French nobleman, D. Raimundo of Burgundy. The king then gave them the Salamanca region. In 1087, the Frenchman invited workers from his country to settle here to help repopulate the lands. This is the origin of the building style and the name of the nearby mountains, the Pena de Francia.

As it turns out, this French design helped the village survive a large earthquake in 1755. They quickly repaired the small amount of damage imposed by the earthquake (see the “staples” in the church), then helped the people in the region’s main city, Salamanca which was badly damaged. As a thank you to the people of La Alberca for their generosity, the city of Salamanca gave statues of crosses to the village, thirteen of which still remain in the village.

The large church in town, the Seniora de la Asuncion (Assumption), was built in stages: the tower was funded by the Duke of Alba, the royal family in these parts, and built in the 1500’s; the main church was completed in 1733.

The interior is large and dimly lit with a muffled feeling as if a thick blanket filled the space. The only sound is the quiet chanting of two women as they make their way around the Stations of the Cross – we are here in the season of Lent.

In centuries past, wealthy parishioners could afford to contribute money to the church, and in return, received burial spaces in the floor close to the altar. Those who contributed less found themselves at the back of the church. Peasants’ bodies were placed inside a walled enclosure outside. These souls were presumed to spend more time in Purgatory, since they could not afford to buy Indulgences. Local women took turns walking to each corner of the village at sunset, ringing a bell along the way for these lost souls, hoping to reduce their time suffering. A local legend tells of a stormy night when the bell-ringer skipped her duty. The villagers heard the bells ring anyway. Th bell-ringing tradition continues today.

Across the street from the church is the symbol of the Spanish Inquisition. Their investigations focused on the Jews and Muslims in the community. The symbol means, either you take up the cross with us and we will offer you the olive branch, or if you do not, you will die by the sword. To prove that they had abandoned their old religions which forbad the eating of pork, Jews and Muslims gave the villagers pigs.

The village continues the tradition to this day. Each year on July 13th, they release a pig into the village, after it is blessed. The pig is welcome to wander the streets like the village dog, fed wherever he happens to be. In the old days, the pig was also welcome to bed for the night in the stables, which originally occupied the ground floor of these two and three story buildings, as is clear from the large heavy doors. Presumably, now that the ground floor is filled with shops, the pig sleeps outside.

On January 17th, the feast of San Antonio, the village auctions off the pig for charity. It is likely that the winner or someone he knows will be able to slaughter this pig because these people are still very close to the land. All around, very close to the village you can find small farms with moss covered rock walls and sheep, black pigs and donkeys.

To commemorate this long tradition, a statue of a pig stands outside the church. There is a belief that if you and your loved one touch the testicles of this statue together and pledge your love, the woman will become pregnant. So watch what you touch in La Alberca.


At this point we had some free time before eating. I wandered back to a shop that specialized in beans, spices and wine. The shop was closed when I first saw it, but the artful doorway intrigued me.

Imagine a place where a business can survive selling such a limited type of product; but oh, the variety and the way they were displayed – a visual feast! I had never seen so many different legumes, more than I could identify. Of course, it doesn’t help that I can’t read Spanish. The shop-keeper methodically packaged spices in small bags as I poked around the shop. I bought a bag of bay (laurel) leaves as a memento.

We regrouped at the Plaza Mayor, and walked over to one of the ancient tapas bars in town, with its medieval Spanish bar customs. The bar was dimly lit, with uneven flooring and the occasional step. Dusty wine bottles filled racks, bullfighting posters hung on the walls, cobwebs hung from ancient rafters. Here we enjoyed cheese, several kinds of ham, and of course, red wine. An expert ham slicer carved one of the specialty jamon for us to taste.

Afterwards, we went to one of the town restaurants for the main meal. By the time we left to head back to the resort, the shops were closed for siesta. Timing is everything when visiting rural Spain.

This medieval town touched my soul like no big city can. The age of the village, and the depth of its roots may best be illuminated by the fact that the Duchess of Alba, from the ancient royal family of this area, is the only person with so many titles that the Queen of England must curtsy to her. That’s a long history.


Thank you to Sam for the great tour. Thanks also to Denise Kass (Denisevlogs) for the photo of the main square.

Plaza Mayor in La Alberca. Photo by Denise Kass

For information on how to visit this region of Spain with free lodging and meals, see Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo.

To learn more about the traditions we experienced and the food/drink, see Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain.

For the rest of my adventure in Spain, see:

Vibrant. whimsical, sensory-rich Barcelona

Semana Santa processions in Marbella


If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.

Posted in enjoying other cultures, learnng new things, Small town life, travel as a transformation tool | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Free room and board for a week in Spain with Diverbo

How does a week in Spain, all expenses paid, sound to you? How about eating fantastic Spanish food, learning about (and trying) local customs, and understanding Spanish culture through conversations with Spaniards? At first I thought it was too good to be true. But it’s real, and I lived it.

As I planned my spring journey through Spain, I remembered a trip an acquaintance took with free lodging and meals for a week. All she had to do was get to Madrid and be willing to talk. Heck, I can do that! So I looked it up.

This offer is Pueblo Ingles, a program for Spaniards wanting to polish their English through full immersion and interactive classes, with 100+ hours of conversation during a week. The company, Diverbo, invites English-speakers from all over the world to interact with their students. And they had a program that fit my schedule at the end of March, in the tiny village of La Alberca in the province of Salamanca, 170 miles west of Madrid. (They also have other locations.)

Seventeen of us volunteers (they call us Anglos) represented England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Florida, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Rhode Island, and Hawaiʻi (with a Wisconsin accent). We have sixteen students from Spain and one from Venezuela. The day before the bus trip to La Alberca, our Program Leaders, Sam and Sabela, hosted the Anglos in Madrid with a traditional paella meal, followed by flamenco entertainment.

Then they answered our questions: it will be cold in the mountains where we’ll be staying at this time of year; the bus trip there will be about four hours; and our daily schedule has us eating breakfast at 9 am, lunch at 2 pm, and dinner at 9 pm. This traditional Spanish dining schedule was a challenge for me. I was ready to eat someone’s arm by 2 pm, and nod off in my dinner soup. On the good side, I could sleep in.

We’re staying in a resort, housed in villas. Each Anglo shares one with a student, them in the upstairs bedroom, us on the main level bedroom, with separate locks.

The atmosphere was casual; for the breakfast buffet, Sam told us not to queue up because we’d be here all day just waiting to eat. “Think of this more like a Spanish market than a British bank. Just elbow your way into the section of the buffet you want.” But the curriculum was rigorous.

The students are mostly younger professionals who need to converse in English on occasion with overseas bosses and English-speaking suppliers: marketing people from multinational companies; IT technical folk, designers and engineers, accountants, business strategists, and people in distribution, sales and retail. They come from a broad range of companies: a national sports team, insurance, local governments, pharmaceuticals, beer, toys and more.

Because the program was full immersion, each student was sure to get practice speaking English in the situations most important to them. One was an MD who presents technical papers in English at professional meetings, but needs to improve his fluency in casual conversation, such as during lunch. Others have regular teleconferences with English speakers which are hard for them to understand. So volunteers with experience rehearsed with them using actual equipment.

The volunteers skewed a bit older than the students. Several are perpetually on the move. Dave and Merete from Manchester, England, sold their business, rented their house out for three years, and are now traveling to far-flung locations and staying for a month at a time in Cyprus, Denmark, Myanmar, Cuba, Spain, China and the Czech Republic. I asked them how they prepared for such a life. Dave told me they contacted every agency with whom they correspond and requested electronic communication for everything including insurance, taxes, and bank statements. For the rest, they contracted with their tax preparer to receive and open all of their mail, dispose of the trash, scan the remainder and send it on to them.

A couple of the volunteers settled in Spain for retirement, like Brian and Colin. Brian has been in southern Spain for 12 years, living quite well on his pension from the British Navy because the cost of living is low compared to England. Colin, a retired officer in the British Army did likewise. He’s a cheeky Welshman, who settled in Galatia, one of the three areas of Spain that speaks a completely different language than Spanish. Both participate in multiple Diverbo programs every year, thoroughly enjoying the transformation of the students as they gain confidence over the seven days of the curriculum.

Part of a morning’s schedule.

And it is a well-planned curriculum. Rule #1 is “English Only,” even in private. Using the setting of a remote resort, the students can be isolated enough to create an environment where they only hear English. The day is segmented into 50 minutes sessions from 10 am until 9 pm, with 10 minute breaks between, plus lunch and a siesta. (Thank God for nap time!)

Each day we covered English phrasal verbs (I had never even heard of that concept – it is so ingrained into English) and idioms. We Anglos were often asking other Anglos what the idioms meant before the one-on-ones with our students, and we had many discussions on their origin – true fun for a word geek like me.

Besides one-on-one chats with a student and a volunteer, we participated in teleconference practice, group discussions where teams of two Anglos and two Spaniards complete a task (have you ever try to stuff a raw egg into a balloon?) or solve the problems of the world, and “theatre” entertainment (voluntary) where program participants put on skits for the rest of the group.

Students were required to make a five-to-seven minute presentation, which was the culmination of their week. Anglos could also volunteer to present. I spoke on how “Iberia shaped Hawaiʻi.” I hadn’t thought about it much until then.

Everyone eats together, two Anglos and two Spaniards to a table. This social interaction allowed them to practice a more casual form of English, often on a topic where they were experts: Spanish food! The food was fantastic: I ate so much of it that I am sure I put on weight.

Lunch and dinner consist of three courses: soup or salad, main course, and dessert, with unlimited wine (red and white) and water. The main course is rarely accompanied by vegetables, only a carb such as potatoes or rice and meat (very often pork).  And while my normal breakfast is a banana with peanut butter, here, I ate ham (so many choices), two eggs, cheese, yogurt, pastry, a half pear and juice. I also learned to drink my coffee Spanish style, with half the cup being warm milk instead of a bit of cream.

After dinner (10 pm), Sam and Sabela offered optional activities such as group word games, singing competitions by country (despite an awesome performance, the Americans came in last!), group quizzes and a party with dancing music. To my surprise, almost all of the Spaniards and volunteers were willing to dance. The day is very long but rewarding, and despite my normal bedtime of 9:30 pm, I stayed until after midnight some evenings. I’m jet-lagged anyway by a full 12 hours, so what the heck – I might as well have fun.

While the stated purpose of this program is for students to improve their English fluency, it becomes so much more after sharing these experiences. One-on-one chats lead to sharing our lives with each other, first small bits, then stories with deeper significance. The Anglos not only correct the students’ English and help them with finding the right word to express themselves, but we begin to understand and appreciate their lives and culture. Likewise, they learn about life all over the English-speaking world. By the end of the week, the students’ English had improved so much that we could even share jokes. We all came away (a phrasal verb) with new friends.

If you think the howling Big Bad Wolf looks good, you should see the Three Little Pigs.

If you’ve ever thought about traveling to Spain (or Germany – Diverbo has a similar program there), and want to meet locals beyond waiters and shop-keepers to have real conversations, sign up for Pueblo Ingles. You won’t be disappointed. They even have a program for teens. Or if you want to improve your Spanish, try their Pueblo Español Program.


Vero, my villa partner, and me.

See also my essay, In love with rural Spain – the village of La Alberca.


To learn more about the traditions we experienced and the food/drink, see Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain.

For the rest of my adventure in Spain, see:

Vibrant. whimsical, sensory-rich Barcelona

Semana Santa processions in Marbella


If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.


Posted in enjoying other cultures, learnng new things, living full out, Making community, Personal growth, travel as a transformation tool, Travel make me learn | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

Seeing my Hawaiʻi through her eyes

I sometimes take living in Paradise for granted, and it takes a guest to help me appreciate it. I recently hosted a fellow beachcombing friend, visiting Hawaiʻi for the first time. She was happy to experience the authentic Big Island through normal activities that make living here such a pleasure. And in doing so, Debbie helped me see and appreciate my Hawai‘i with fresh eyes – through her eyes.

On arrival, she wanted to treat for supper. But instead of a restaurant that evening, we stopped for salads and pineapple, and took them to Anaeho‘omalu Bay. Skirting around the closed park gate, we slipped to the beach. In the dark everything looked different, and we wound up picnicking on the wall near the Royal Fish Ponds. We indulged in our simple fare, squished our toes in the cool sand, and listened to the ocean waves just over the sand dune.

Once satiated, and now with eyes accustomed to the half-moon light, we found the beach chairs. For the next half hour, we lounged, viewed the moon and Venus, listened to the waves at our feet, chatted, and sometimes meditated. She was so delighted that it’s inspired me to greet every visitor with a toes-in-the-sand first stop.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: I have been in love with Hawaiʻi since 7th grade, when a cute boy joined our California class from Hawaiʻi. I immediately learned as many Hawaiian words as I could; posters went up in my room and I began my fascination with vintage Hawaiiana. Diane’s introduction to the Big Island turned my obsession from longing into reality. I was well rewarded for my patience.

As my time there progressed, I began to see it more as something to feel instead of something to get. That night, lying on lounge chairs under the moon, watching swaying palm trees and hearing island music float by on the breeze was magical – a great opportunity to practice letting things happen instead of seeking them out.

The next morning, Debbie requested a trip to Hawi’s Farmer’s Market where her daughter is a vendor. Abilene’s been here for eight months, first as a woofer and now as a care-taker for a small farm. She bakes banana bread, makes chocolate and offers a wicked-good lilikoi-limeade drink with chia seeds. Debbie hadn’t seen her for seven months, so this was a very happy reunion. I slipped away to give them some private time. But after the market, we joined Abilene at her farm, where she eats and cooks in a roofed but open-air kitchen and sleeps in a tricked-out school bus.

This was my first time at the Hawi Market. They have a perfect location, under the giant banyan trees in town. As with our Honoka‘a Farmer’s Market, people congregated at picnic tables, eating and visiting with friends.


I found a long-time friend who also happens to be my custom-computer guy (Falcon Computers), and it reminded me that we live in a small world on the Big Island. After a hearty hug, Shaun informed me that my new lighter-weight computer was in and would be ready for pick up later in the week. This computer will make my backpack about three pounds lighter in my upcoming travels. What I really love about working with Shaun is that he knows me so well that he was able to recommend some specific upgrades and downgrades to match my usage. THAT is what living in a community means.

Shaun’s son wandered over with a basket full of colored soaps. The 10-year-old makes them and sells them at the market – such a wonderful way to build life skills. Of course I made a purchase – a green heart-chakra soap.

Any of these Hawi moments would have been worthy of its own blog essay. When you are fully present to each moment, you can have a very rich life indeed.

On our way back to Honokaʻa, I spontaneously turned to the beach at Kawaihae. We wandered the beach, picking up a few treasures before heading home.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: The tumbled pieces of orange and white coral on this beach fascinated me with their resemblance to other living things. It reminded me of the Japanese art of Suiseki, which includes the appreciation of nature through stones. Though I only took a few home with me, I left with a smile on my face.

On Sunday, Debbie wanted to go to the Honokaʻa Farmer’s Market. Good thing, as I had coconuts to sell. I took them to the Hāmākua Agricultural Cooperative’s booth. The Cooperative takes a 30% commission, well worth the price of managing all the sales.


While there, I met Roy dropping off his many cartons of fresh eggs and cooking bananas. He gave me a bunch that was just turning. Can’t wait to sauté them in some butter and brown sugar, or grill them in their jackets.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: I will never forget my time at the Honokaʻa Farmer’s Market. I watched as commerce and conversation mingled with the beautiful voice of a young singer wafting through the market. Roy chopped open a coconut and offered it to me. After I drank it down he said to me, “you know what happens when you drink that stuff? You get young!”

After a tour of the market to buy cucumbers, lettuce, and Roy’s eggs, we drove to the Waipiʻo Valley Overlook – such a meditative spot. We decided to take the scenic route through Kukuihaele, a small village, many of whose families once lived in the valley.

To our surprise, we came across two large turkeys displaying for a hen. They took no mind of us at all. In fact, I actually had to gently push them a bit with my car to get past them.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: Choosing the slow way to the lookout was SO worth it. I loved seeing the quaint row of plantation houses lined up along the road. The Japanese fan-dancer impersonators gave us quite a show trying to woo their intended mate. Then a few moments later, we witnessed one of the fattest rainbows I have ever seen. 

There’s always something new to observe at Waipiʻo.  This time I noticed how strange the waves looked when they crested: they appeared to be going both toward the shore and away from it.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: For me, seeing the Waipi’o Valley was a mix of emotions. Witnessing its beauty bathed my heart, while the specter of a tsunami to the people living in the valley made me sad for the victims of the past and fearful for the current and future residents. I admire them for their strength to accept the beauty and peace of now. 

Much of the rest of the day, Debbie helped me with this year’s crop of macadamia nuts. I had been cracking my nuts for about a week and had enough shelled to make it worthwhile for Debbie to separate them into different sizes for roasting.

We also snacked on the fruits and veggies from Abilene: lilikoi, yacon and tangerines. She had also dug up some turmeric for her mom. Abilene said it was healthy for you, but Debbie wanted to taste it straight-up before mixing it into her smoothies. So we decided to “be brave” and taste it raw. Mistake. The taste (and the yellow color) stayed on our tongues for quite a while.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: I cannot help but laugh out loud every time I remember this experience. I count it as a badge of honor that we were brave enough to do this. Whenever I hesitate to take the opportunity to do something new, I will remember that, as bad as this picture makes it seem, I survived and am better for it!

On Monday, Debbie joined me at yoga at 8:30. Guests or no guests, I don’t miss Anita’s yoga class unless I am gone. Later we strolled through Honokaʻa to visit all the thrift and vintage stores. We both bought treasures at the Green Chair and Chi Chi LaFong’s. At Molly’s Green Chair, I scored a cute painted table/stool for my front lanai that I now use while donning my sneakers. My cat scored even more. She loves that little stool.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: DEBBIE’S VOICE: I so enjoyed Anita’s class. Her calm demeanor and clear instructions made me feel comfortably guided with each pose. And her lychees and pineapple were such a nice treat at the end! Thrift store treasure hunting is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world, especially in a place I’ve never been. For me, it’s about the history and stories of the items for sale. Where have they been? What do they carry with them?

Debbie’s visit even inspired me to stop at locations I’ve always wanted to explore, like the abandoned green storefront and the shallow lava tube on the way to Waipiʻo. We also stopped at the Lower Hāmākua Ditch, with its story of the immigrants who built it for the sugar mills.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: I loved hearing stories about the Hawaiian past. The green building enchanted me with my own made-up stories of what could have happened there over the years. The lava tube was so dark and mysterious! I marveled at how it came to be made. And the Lower Hāmākua Ditch showed me what people can do when they put their minds to it. All were examples of the spellbinding qualities of places. 

It’s so easy to appreciate my little world when I have guests, and I thank Debbie for taking me on this rich and restful stay-cation.

DEBBIE’S VOICE: I am so grateful to Diane for the helpful guidance, the wonderful conversations, the hospitality and her loving kindness by being my host and my friend. Till next time!


Cooking bananas grilled in their jackets (with marinated chicken)

My other essays on Hāmākua Harvest:

Hāmākua Harvest – One Man’s Vision

Hāmākua Harvest – these are my farmers

Call me Farmer Di


On Waipiʻo:

Waipi‘o – valley of the kings


On Macadamia nut harvesting and roasting

Macadamia Academia

Macadamia Nuts: Watch them like a hawk

If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.


Posted in friends, Honoka'a, Kawaihae, Macadamia Nuts, Small town life, thifting - thrift stores, Things to do on the Big Island, yoga | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments