Heard loud cheering and the squeals of children and looked out from my balcony. A huge crowd of people lined the boulevard across from the hotel, both sides of the street, for blocks. Floats, costumed characters, marching bands and more.
People on the float pictured were throwing fistfuls of candy to the audience. Christmas? New Year? Some celebration I never heard of? Whatever it was, it was quite the spectacle.
There are some places you just know the minute you set foot there that it’s going to be special.
Malaga is all that and much more, a place where the ancient and the modern coexist beautifully.
Situated on the southern coast of Spain, at the mouth of the Guadalmedina River in the middle of the Costa del Sol region, Malaga is approximately 100 miles northeast of Gibraltar, and an hour flight from Tangier, Morocco.
First settled nearly 2,800 years ago, it is one of the oldest cities in the world.
Numerous cultures have put their stamp on the city since the Phoenicians established the city of Malaka 1100 years before Christ, including the Greeks, then the the Moors. In 211 BC, the Romans came and stayed until the Visagoths arrived in the wake of Rome’s fall. That was followed by eight centuries of Islamic rule, before what would become Spain assumed control in 1487.
Oddly enough, it was only 100 years ago that the old Roman theater ruins, the “Teatro Romano,” was discovered immediately adjacent to what would become the heart of the modern “old city.”
It would be another 450 years before Malaga saw its final battle, during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
With all its history, Malaga has been called “an open museum,” a place where its Phoenician, Roman, Greek, Moorish and Spanish Christian influences lay all about. Add in that this is the birthplace of artistic lion Pablo Picasso, as well as actor Antonio Banderas, and one can understand that this is a unique place.
Immediately behind my hotel is a mammoth Cathedral, centuries old. It towers taller than the 15th floor Terraza of the AC Marriott hotel. My map is unclear exactly what it is called- I’ll bother to look it up tomorrow.
In any event, all that history both blends with and stands apart from the modern day culture of the city, which is, in a word, delightful.
Malaga is not a small city, exactly, with 570,000 inhabitants, sixth largest in Spain. But the old town, where you’ll find all the fun and interesting stuff, is eminently walkable- strollable is a better word to use. You’ll want to wander slowly.
In early January the temperature ranges from the high 50s to low 60s, not summer weather, but sunny and quite comfortable in the day time.
The harbor area is both a scenic delight and a working industrial area, and one doesn’t clash with the other, as odd as that might sound to Americans. Packed trendy restaurants are just across the road from 2,000 year old Roman ruins. A block away from the the “Roman Teatro” is the Picasso Museum; three blocks off is his birthplace.
I wandered about the Old Town for several hours Saturday. I’ll be here through next Friday. Consider this my book report on Malaga. For the next week I’ll explore the town and post more photos here, and maybe more text, before heading to Tangier for the start of my trek through Morocco.
And for the next two days, I’ll continue to enjoy the lofty views from my 8th floor balcony and the spectactular 300 degree city and harbor vistas from the hotel’s 15th floor Terraza.
I was surprised to see a dark sky when we touched down at 7:45 a.m. During the more than one mile walk to the immigration counters, the black horizon out past the terminal windows finally started glowing a dull pink. Normally I would stop to appreciate such things, but the trek from the distant Terminal 4S to immigration and then the tram to the exit area was an ordeal. I’ll let you ponder what the I think the “S” stands for.
I thought a Premium Economy seat would assure a restful night. After all, most younger parents with children can’t afford to pay for premium seats for their kids, right?
But a young family with not one but three children, including a very unhappy 2-year old, proved me wrong and ruined my plan. Intermittent but steady crying and whining throughout the entire eight hour flight and maybe 30 minutes of sleep for me.
I tried to tell myself, hey, they’re not having any fun either. It didn’t work.
Unfortunatley, I’d also opted to lug a 40-litre back pack around rather than my nifty Away roller suitcase, and I was relieved to reach my hotel just after 9 a.m. local time. Or, as my body was telling me, 2 a.m.
Hours later, after a 2-hour nap that stretched to five, I found myself in the restaurant at the Crowne Plaza Madrid Airport hotel, trying to shake off the sleep and the 7-hour time difference, just after 5 p.m. on New Years Eve.
I was in that hotel cocoon found in many countries, where there is no distinctive culture, just welcome creature comforts. Experiencing what I call a “muted transistion,” when the move from home to away isn’t immediately clearly demarcated, despite an 8-hour plane ride and other travel.
Looking out at the highway traffic zipping past the windows of the the pleasantly comfortable but non-distinctive hotel restaurant, I felt as if I could be anywhere in America. A brassy American R&B flavored number with English lyrics played at low volume over the speakers, while across the room a big cartoon panda bear was twirling nunchuks or whatever over his head and mugging to the audience.
Meanwhile, the weather outside was barely above freezing, not much different than what I left in Chicago. Only the chatter of several restaurant workers- in Spanish, which is hardly a foreign language anymore in America- and the menu prices in Euros suggested I might be outside the states.
But the transition is over today. This afternoon I fly to Seville for two days, then two days in Granada (the original Granada) two days in the small moutain village of Archidona to visit freinds, and five days in Malaga on the southern coast.
Then off to Morocco for 17 days- Tangier, Casablanca, Marrakech and Essaouira, where I expect it will certainly get more culturally divergent.
Granada, Nicaragua is a city transformed by political and economic catyclysm earlier this year. It is now muted and subdued, as if some of its natural color has bled out.
On Dec. 11, I flew down to Nicaragua for a week-long visit to see how people I care about were doing, and to help where I could.
Perhaps because it was not the city I experienced the first four times I visited, I saw it with new eyes. Or maybe just eyes focused on many of the same things I saw before, but did not act upon.
Saturday morning, Dec. 15, I accompanied my friend Terry Leary out to the hard scrabble Pantanal barrio. Her freinds Jim Durham and Monica Lovely founded Education Plus there in the poorest of the poor neighborhoods outside Granada in 2012.
In 2014, they built Casa de los Sueños, a 12,000 square foot school and social center that now serves 260 children aged 4 to 18. There is a plain poetry woven through the prose of the school’s mission statement:
“To provide the children of Pantanal, Nicaragua with food, education, and activities in order to eliminate malnutrition, instill core values, and give them the resources and opportunities they need to rise above their impoverished circumstances.”
Durham likes to refer to the “little miracles” that occur all the time at their school. As I looked at the innocent faces and the open eyes of desperately poor Nicaraguan children, kids who are guilty of nothing more than being born to poor, uneducated parents in a country with almost no economic safety nets, I experienced such a miracle within myself.
Something breaking out from a place deep within me. Something I had always believed was external to myself.
Earlier that week, after four months of procrastination, I finally started reading historian John Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America. It is a work of profound wisdom and hope, counseling that for all the pain and unsettling weirdness in current national and world affairs, we have been through this before as a nation, and our better angels have always prevailed.
At one point I set Mecham’s book aside and took a moment to read the latest web essay from mythologist Michael Meade, entitled “Freinds of the Soul.” In it he writes of the ancient phenomenon of two people meeting and finding a commonality in purpose that creates a bond between them. As an old Celtic concept had it, “Anam Cara,” that is, soul freindship.
While Meacham and Meade are quite different in approach and focus, both write of the challenge of these dark and troubling times, of the need to turn away from fear and to embrace the hope and love of our better angels.
Meacham suggests that our innate abilities to tackle the challenges of this world must be protected and fostered. Like Meade, he writes about hope and fear.
“Fear is about limits, hope is about growth,” Meacham writes. “Fear casts its eye warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon.”
Meade notes that “Ancient traditions around the world include the idea that each soul has an inner spark of life that grows by being seen, by being truly acknowledged and supported by others.”
Soul friends, Meade writes, “befriend the uniqueness of each other’s soul and know how to support the radiance trying to grow from within.”
Jim and Monica, who are soul freinds indeed, like to refer to the “little miracles” that occur all the time at their school. Last Saturday I experienced such a miracle within myself.
I gave a donation to the school before I left, a relatively small amount, and so was a bit stunned to receive so much back so immediately. Watching those children, I felt my heart break open, felt bathed in a warm radiance. It was only later that I realized that the warmth and radience I had felt came not from them- though that was certainly present- but from me, from within me. Something within me was suddenly unblocked and free to be expressed into the world.
That light, that soul radiance, is not some airy fairy, new age touchy-feely b.s. It is how the world really works underneath all the earthly distractions we are prone to. It is how our spirits thrive.
I later found myself thinking that, since my spirit is all I’m going to leave this physical world with one day, I should start paying more attention to what it needs.
A day or two later, I accompanied Terry again, this time on a shopping trip to buy items for Christmas gift baskets to be distributed to some of those same poor Pantanal families. I followed her lead on what items to purchase; 4-pound bags of rice and beans, oil and seasoning, a gift card for perishables like fresh chicken and vegetables (there are no refrigerators in the barrio), juice and other treats for the kids, toothpaste and tooth brushes. Bath soap.
My cost came to $27, and I marveled at how little money it takes to buy enough food, other necessities and a few small luxuries for a family to eat for three or four days and enjoy a happier Christmas than might have been. How easy it is to have a positive impact in people’s lives.
That evening I sat alone in the interior garden of Nectar Restaurant on the Calle Calzada, enjoying dinner. When the check came – for two glasses of 12-year old Flor de Cana rum and Corvino sea bass, it was $24, plus a $3 tip. Exactly $27 for a single meal; the same amount I had spent on that gift basket for five or six people to eat well for three or four days.
In this season of giving and celebration, I want to suggest that we all could benefit from re-focusing on those with whom we share common values and purpose. And to not avert our eyes from those things that call out for our involvement.
This world and its challenges feel overwhelming so often, seem larger than our individual abilities to respond effectively. The answer, I have found late in my life, is to support those with whom we share values and goals. To not forget that that small flame we carry within us for the things that truly matter in this life can be reinforced and strengthened when working in concert with others.
It is my deep and sincere hope that all those I care for take a moment to look within themselves and ponder both what it is that is most important to them, and who are the people who support their pursuit of those important goals.
Being “generous” (for the lack of a better term) is not difficult. It is a simple choice to either do or to not do. There are no excuses or reasons for not doing, because how to do it is not set in stone. It is what is right, however large or small, however many or few times we choose to do it.
We always know what is right, whether or not we admit it to ourselves. We know. All there is then, is to do, to the extent we are able.
The world is waiting. People are waiting. Our hearts are waiting, to be freed, to open up, and share their inner light with the outside world. And to know that secret that I kept from myself for whatever reason- the truth that while we are benefitting others, we are giving to ourselves.
It is a small, radiant miracle waiting to be experienced as many times as we care to be open to it. Whether two thousand miles away, or in our hometowns.
Welcome to my new travel blog, Over the Hill & Far Away. In a perfect world, I’d have had all the preparations completed before putting this site up. But this isn’t a perfect world, and I’m not a perfect man. So this will be a work in progress for a while, as I get comfortable with the nuances of Word Press and my attempt to post numerous times per week.
(Feel free to pleasure yourself with the thought of a group of Moroccans passing by my hotel patio in Marakkech startled by the sight of a frustrated American cursing at his lap top as he tries to edit a photo in Word Press.)
I just returned from a quick trip to Nicaragua, and will be posting a couple articles and a photo or two as soon as I take care of some other personal business. On December 30, I depart for three months in Morocco, Portugal and Spain, and will be posting most evenings. I sincerely hope you enjoy what I have to relate.
I’ve found in the past that when I write about what I’ve experienced, I understand those experiences better than if I hadn’t taken the time to put them in print.
I plan to, as travel author Rolf Potts put it, be a traveler and not a tourist. In his classic book, Vagabonding, Potts quotes a fellow traveler he met in Thailand, who distinguished between the two thusly: “Tourists leave home to escape the world, while travelers leave home to experience the world.”
My intent is to experience the world, which will often require movement, but which will also at times involve just sitting for a while and watching as a once distant part of the world passes by right before me.