My Last Three Weekends: Madrid, Nerja, and Morocco

Grace Sells
April 28, 2020
Photo of Chefchaouen at dawn

I left Spain over a month ago. The day after I decided to leave, IES Abroad announced that all of the students in their European programs had to go back to the United States. At first, I was very sad to be going. Now, I have found a “new normal” at home in California. I am still so bummed that we had to leave early, but it is easier now that I am having fun being with my family and my dog. 

My journey back home was relatively uneventful. I was lucky because none of my flights were canceled, and only my last leg was delayed. I flew out of Málaga on Tuesday, March 17th. I went from Málaga to Madrid to LAX and finally to SFO; most of the airports were unusually empty by this point. 

In my two months in Granada, I made cherished friends, formed a steady life routine, loved my host parents, heard my Spanish speaking skills improve, ate bread every day, went out for tapas most nights of the week, and visited Madrid, Nerja, Málaga, Córdoba, Sevilla, and Morocco. With the remainder of the semester, I had planned on continuing to find new favorite restaurants and bars (I was on a hunt for authentic Japanese food), traveling to Rome, Lisbon, and Barcelona, seeing one of my host nephew's soccer games, deepening my existing friendships, improving my Spanish, and exploring new running trails around the city. But it’s too sad to think about what I would have been doing if I were still in Granada, so now that I’ve typed it here I won’t think about it anymore. 

What I will think about are my happy memories. As promised in my last post, I will tell you about my trips to Madrid, Nerja, and Morocco. I took these trips on three consecutive weekends, the three weekends before the weekend I was sent home.

Madrid

I went to Madrid with my friends Eric, Georgia, and Liv. This was one of the best trips I have ever taken! I loved it because traveling with friends is so relaxing - you can do whatever you want whenever you want without having to schedule every minute of the day. We arrived late Friday night after a day trip to Córdoba. We ate a quick dinner and then fell right asleep. 

The next day, we took the subway to a brunch place that we had been drooling over ever since we saw it online. In Spain, they don’t usually have huge, rich breakfasts like we sometimes do in the United States. We all missed those decadent brunches, so this place (called Zenith) was enticing, albeit not very authentic. There was a long line of people outside and my stomach was already growling but we had already fantasized about the food we planned on ordering so we decided to stick it out and wait for a table. It was so. worth. it. The brunch was amazing! I promise I won’t go into this much detail for any other part of the trip but we couldn’t get over how good it was. Banana bread with a flambe banana on top, french toast with berry compote, and eggs benedict adorned our table, along with fresh juice and tea. For the rest of the trip, every time we remembered it we gushed again. 

After brunch came a visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, a quick stop for coffee, a walk in the park, a shopping trip, a nap, a delicious Italian dinner, and then dancing until 4 am at a discoteca. I love dancing, and I’m so glad that I went in Madrid because I never had another opportunity for the rest of my time in Granada. 

We slept late the next day, met up with a friend studying in the city, and then took a long bus ride home. We listened to music and laughed as fields and fields of olive trees flew by our windows.

Nerja

The weekend after Madrid, we went on a trip to Nerja for my friend Ashely’s 21st birthday. My six closest girlfriends and I arrived in the coastal town early in the morning. We spent the day lounging on the beach, snacking, collecting pretty rocks, and being silly. After, we went grocery shopping to get ingredients for a home-cooked meal. We weren’t allowed to cook in our homestays, so having access to a stove was a big deal. Then, we arrived at the Airbnb. It was gorgeous! It had a front lawn with flower bushes, a pool, and little statuettes. Inside was a sleek home with lots of windows and a dining table for all of us. When we opened the gate and walked inside for the first time, we were all just yelling and jumping for a minute or two.

Unfortunately, right around dinner time, I started to feel really sick. I was feverish and weak. For dinner, I had only Advil and bread, and I went to bed early while my friends stayed up celebrating. That was one of my lowest moments in Spain. I had such high expectations for the trip, so getting sick was devastating. The next day, my friends toured these natural caves near our Airbnb while I slept some more. We cleaned up and took the bus home. I think they all had a really fun time, and I had a lot of fun at the beach too, before the illness. I still look back on the weekend fondly because it was so special for all of us girls to spend time together.

Morocco

IES Abroad’s program in Granada includes a 5 day trip to Morocco. I was procrastinating writing about Morocco because it was just such an incredible trip that I was stressed about trying to describe it with words. I decided to give myself permission to not try to fully capture it, because I cannot. Instead, I will share a few highlights. 

We took a bus to the Strait of Gibraltar, then we took a ferry and arrived in Tangier. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we got a tour of the city from some students and drank tea at a cafe. We saw a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. One of the people who showed us around was a funny and thoughtful woman named Iman. I was pleased to see that she also worked at the nonprofit organization that we visited the next day! This visit was one of the best parts of the trip. We just had a free, unrestricted conversation with three young Moroccan women. We asked them all kinds of questions about religion, politics, dating, and anything else we were curious about. They were gracious and nonjudgemental in their responses. I related to the ways that Iman and the other women were negotiating their traditional faiths with their liberal politics, as this is an exercise I do daily. After the conversation, we got a tour of the organization, where poor women learned skills to find employment in Tangier. 

Later that day, we drove to a smaller city named Asilah before arriving in Rabat. Here, something miraculous happened! One of my best friends from high school, Jesse, was studying in Morocco. I hadn’t told her that I would be in the country because I thought our busy schedule wouldn’t have allowed us time to meet up. Moreover, I couldn’t remember what city she was in, so I wasn’t even sure if we would be close to each other. So anyway, our bus arrived in Rabat and I went around the back to retrieve my luggage. Sure enough, Jesse was on the other side of the street walking right towards me! Both of our jaws dropped. We had a movie moment in which we were staring at each other from across the busy street, tearing up and bouncing around, waiting for a break in the cars. Finally, Jesse rushed across the street and we hugged for a long time. It was crazy! And probably crazier for her, as she had no idea I was even in the country much less in her neighborhood. Soon after we embraced, I had to go meet the family that I would be staying with in Rabat, but we made plans to meet up the next day. I was beaming for the rest of the night. 

Just after, we split into groups of three and met the families we would stay with for our two nights in Rabat. Staying with a host family was a really interesting glimpse into Moroccan culture. My trio lived with a matriarch and five of her descendants (including her toddling great-grandson.) The only English-speaker was her grandson, a man of about 35 years. Although we tried, our nonverbal communication with the women of the household was limited. 

The next day, we toured some historical sights in Rabat, and I got to break off with Jesse and see what her life was like living in the country’s capital. She took me to the new national photography museum, which had just opened a few months prior. It was repurposed out of an old military fortress. The photographs were beautiful, some featuring androgyny, homosexuality, feminism, and other themes that I had assumed would be restricted in Morocco. Jesse said she was surprised too, and noted the irony of having politically charged art in a military base in a national museum. 

In the early evening, we headed to the neighborhood Hammam or the public bathhouse. This experience is my other favorite memory from Morocco. The baths are structures that contain three-or-so rooms, each increasing in temperature. They are segregated by gender. When we arrived, there was a front room where we undressed and left our possessions. We walked further into the Hammam and saw dozens of naked women sitting on the floor, scrubbing themselves clean until they had removed all of their “spaghetti,” or rolls of dry skin. As a group, we went into the hottest room and began to do the same. It felt empowering to share this communal space with women of all ages and nationalities, unconcerned with how I looked to others, only concerned with making my skin soft and clean and helping my friends achieve the same goal. We scrubbed each other's backs, shared our shampoo, and smiled about the unfamiliar cultural practice. After a while, we got dressed again, unable to stop feeling our smooth arms and legs. 

The next morning, we left Rabat to go to the Moroccan countryside and talk with a rural farmer’s family. On the way, we sang lots of songs together including a random but highly successful rendition of All I Want For Christmas Is You. I guess this is a good time to mention that the whole trip, I was traveling in a hilarious, energetic group called Al Ruman (I think this is the Arabic translation of The Pomegranates.) We were led by an intelligent, suave, and thoughtful guide named Jalyn, who can sing Mariah Carey’s riffs even better than she can. I was a bit skeptical about my group before the trip, mostly because all of my close friends in Granada were placed together in a different group, but in the end, I was thankful for such a fun team of students and leaders. 

The countryside was stunning, and the family we met was very sweet. We drove to Chefchaouen, went souvenir shopping (thank goodness, as these ended up being my only souvenirs from my whole time abroad), and left the next day. There are many fun stories I missed from this trip, but to write them all would make this post unbearably long. 

Signing off for the last time

This is my last blog post for IES Abroad. I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to share my experiences. Blogging may have been embarrassing, but it was a nice way to update my loved ones about my adventures in Granada and elsewhere.

I guess the last thing I’d like to say is that before I had a lot of time to reflect, I felt victimized by the virus. I felt like the loss of my semester abroad was a particularly heartbreaking disappointment compared with what others have lost. I was wrong to think that, and I have moved beyond this mentality. Everyone is grieving the loss of something right now, and it is all so significant. I’m sorry for all of your losses, and I hope that somehow you’re getting something positive in exchange, like I am with my family time at home. 

Thanks to the readers, to the staff at IES Abroad Granada, and to all the friends I made overseas. 

Dos besos,

Grace

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Grace Sells

<p>My name is Grace Sells and I'm a junior at Carnegie Mellon University studying Global Studies and Art. I'm originally from San Jose, California, but now I'm studying in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. In my free time I enjoy making art and spending time with friends and family. Fun fact: I never go to restaurants without asking my friends for a bite of their food.</p>

Destination:
Term:
2020 Spring
Home university:
Carnegie Mellon University
Hometown:
Los Gatos, CA
Major:
Global Studies
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