Sunday, July 10, 2016

Month #3 in Mexico City - Finally Settling In

I really feel like we have finally settled into life in La Condesa and along with that has come a sense of natural rhythm and normalcy here in Mexico City. My stress level has gone down considerably as I have adjusted to the new pace of life. It’s the little things, like knowing where to find certain food products, the best grocery stores to go to and the local cafe with the best coffee, pastry and strong wifi. I walk through Parque Mexico in the middle of the day and chuckle as I watch the dog walkers trying not to get their 10 dogs (of all shapes and sizes) all twisted up with the different leashes. Then you have the experienced dog walkers who have their 10 dogs lined up, laying down and waiting patiently to be walked again. [Note: I’ll never understand why so many people in La Condesa have dogs if they have to hire someone to walk them everyday, but hey, every each their own]. I walk with confidence through Mercado Medellin and know exactly which stands to buy my cheese from, my fruits and vegetables from, my fish and meat from. I have started learning names of the different vendors and they have learned mine. I purposely take the long way home or turn on unknown streets to stumble across new things and I keep my notebook handy to write about my discoveries.

Mural en El Centro Histórico

Organic Produce - Mercado 100
You get used to waking up to these strange but distinct sounds - birds chirping, a distant sound of a guy selling churros, the blender from the lady next door. At night, aside from the constant sound of distant honking horns, there is also this distinct high pitched screeching sound, like a singing tea kettle, that comes from los carritos de los camotes selling hot sweet potatoes. I chuckle every time I see the guys that circle around with a modified bike selling tamales oaxaquenos using a very distinct recording that repeats something like, “¡Tamales oaxaqueños! ¡Ricos tamales oaxaqueños!” The strange thing is though, is that you hear the same recording in many parts of the city and you wonder, wow, this guy must be in great shape if he can pass through all of these neighborhoods! But then, I read somewhere that a while ago one guy made a recording of himself selling tamales, because he had become famous for his ad. Now, everyone who sells tamales all over Mexico City uses that same recording thinking that they too will have the same success (here is an actual recording). At least once a day you can also see or hear the truck that blasts a different recording announcing that they are willing to pick up any basic used home appliance. A rather distinct female voice on the recording dictates in a monotone voice all of the things that they pick up, “lavadoras, secadoras, licuadoras, tostadoras, estufas, refrigeradores, microondas etc.” After a while, this one can really get under your skin as it’s not the most pleasant recording while enjoying your morning cup of coffee, but it adds to the jumble of unusual sounds.

Azulejo en Polanco
I have learned how to cross the street with purpose and a bit of aggressiveness - if not, I would never be able to cross the street! I have fallen in love with a type of sweet snack made with honey and amaranto, called dulce de alegría (roughly translated to “sweet delight”). Amaranto is a type of grain (called amaranth in english although I had never heard of it until now) and was a staple in the Aztec diet. However when Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, amaranto crops were burned and its use forbidden. Luckily, the little plant has tough roots and was never quite eliminated. Amaranto is a strong source of protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. It’s a lot like quinoa but softer and a lot cheaper! They sell the alegría bars on every corner and in every metro station so I never have to go far to get my fix. Aside from my new found love of amaranto, I frequent a small juice stand a block from my house that makes me pretty much any kind of smoothie or fresh squeezed juice my heart desires for $1.25 or under (try to beat that Jamba Juice!).

For an update on what I’m doing to fill my time here: I just finished my Spanish course at CEPE (El Centro de Enseñanza para Extranjeros) at UNAM and am enjoying a bit of relaxation time. I am happy to announce that I have accepted a permanent, year-long teaching position at an elementary school not far from my house. I will be teaching English to 4th, 5th and 6th graders and I am elated to have this opportunity to grow in my profession. Not to mention that having a full-time job that I enjoy really grounds me here in Mexico City and gives me purpose - something I think I have been desperately searching for since I arrived. The position starts in mid-August and I couldn’t be happier. Until then, Ray and I are planning a 2-week backpacking trip to the Yucatan Peninsula - it’s a rather spur of the moment decision and we plan to hit the road any day now!

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

First Month of Madness in Mexico City

Our new street " Avenida Amsterdam"
It’s hard to believe that a whole month has gone by since we made the final move to Mexico City. We found a lovely apartment in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city called "La Condesa” – well, I feel like the apartment found us. We originally saw the place listed on Craigslist and set up an appointment to see it. The owner ended up being a very nice American man (New Yorker) who lives right across the way with his partner, Nick. Jim is an artist, Nick is a food critic, and they have lived in Mexico for 20 years. Built in the 1940s the Art Deco interior of the building/apartment was incredibly charming and it reminded us a lot of our old apartment in Sacramento. We immediately told Jim that we wanted it and he invited us in to print up a few documents. As we waited, I casually looked at his computer screen and noticed a picture of a book with the caption, "My book is now on Amazon!" I realized that it was the same Mexico City Travel book I had been reading since I got there. I immediately turned to him and said, "oh my gosh, I'm reading your book and its wonderful!" From that moment on, we knew it was a sign! I just couldn't believe that out of the 20 million people that live in Mexico City, we happened to be renting from the man who wrote one of the only recent guide books on Mexico City - Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler by Jim Johnston. He also has this amazing blog. At this point, I pretty much have him on speed-dial (ok, I guess these days it would be my “favorites” on my I-phone contacts) for every question, doubt, curiosity etc. He’s probably getting tired of me by now.

As for an update on life in general, Ray is still “saving the world” selling solar with SolarCity. I think he and his team are finding that getting into the hearts and minds of the Mexican people is a little bit more difficult than originally expected. It seems as though, most mexicanos prefer a house visit rather than a phone call, where they can spend a few hours shootin’ the breeze talking about work and family before getting down to business. A different culture for sure and the team is adapting. As for me, I’ve had a few bad experiences taking courses at the local Spanish language schools [note: if you ever come to CDMX to learn Spanish, never go to Frida Language School, it’s a total scam]. My next plan of attack is to try the 6 week Spanish program at CEPE (Centro de Enseñanza de Extranjeros) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). I’m also trying out a few different career avenues in English teaching – I’ve started a very part-time job teaching Business English and have had a few interviews with various private elementary schools. Lots of options and opportunities and none of them really care too much about me obtaining a work VISA – a definite PLUS over the European Union where it’s almost impossible to find a job.

One of the many beautiful murals here in CDMX

Aside from that, below are a few more random observations, revelations, emotions, experiences I’ve had over the last 4 weeks:

Los piropos callejeros – The English translation would technically be “street pick-up lines” however, the men here in Mexico City have taken it to another level. I have been in everything from jeans and sweatshirt with glasses and no makeup, to  a dress with my hair down and heals and it makes no difference – if you’re on a public street, sidewalk, anywhere, men take this as their entitled masculine right to yell at you, whistle, honk, anything to get your attention. I have heard mixed comments about this "cultural norm." This article, “Piropos callejeros, otra forma de violencia,” seems to express an overwhelming sense of anger and offense towards these piropos callejeros and yet, walking down Paseo de La Reforma, one of the busiest streets in Mexico, I am rather shocked by how many short skirts, cleavage, 4-inch heels, tight dresses etc. I see walking down the street. I guess it is all up for interpretation and there are varying opinions and well, I have definitely had to grow some thick skin and brush them off in order to go about my day to day life.

Public Transportation – Along the same lines of male aggressiveness here in the city, the buses and metros have been segregated. The first car is reserved for women only to avoid any unwanted stares, groping and piropos. There is even a female security officer at each station that patrols the car to yell at any of those men trying to make their way into the female car. I love that lady! Aside from that, public transportation in the city, is incredibly cheap (6 pesos a ride = 35 cents) and relatively safe.

UBER – Another thing that is incredibly cheap and safe is using UBER. I spend on average $1-$3 USD per ride. The cars are clean and the drivers are polite, respectful and interesting to talk to. They offer you water, speak to you in “usted” (the formal way of speaking to someone in Spanish) and open doors. It is normally my mode of transportation of choice.

Cheap and Delectable Eats – Ray and I have tried a variety of restaurants here and all have been not only incredibly inexpensive but amazingly delicious. We have tried everything from Italian, to sushi, to traditional Mexican, to Thai and have yet to be disappointed.

"Huevos Divorciados" - Divorced Eggs

Building a cycle culture in CDMX – Ray and I bought brand new bikes for under $100 and we have both been utilizing them for transportation. ECOBICI, Mexico’s public bike sharing system, has added 444 bike stations in 42 neighborhoods since its opening in 2010. (We tried the service once, and Ray being the bike snob he is, didn’t like the feel of the bikes or the 45 minute maximum before you had change your bike for a new one, hence the personal bikes). However, you see thousands of people riding ECOBICIs all over the city and the roads that do have bike lanes make it fairly comfortable to ride up and down Mexico’s busiest streets. What still needs a lot of time to develop is a general respect from car drivers towards cyclists and pedestrians for that matter. In this city cars rule the roads and always have the right away, even if you have the green to cross. Normally, when I need to cross a street, I have a deep stare down with the car driver and inch forward and I give him the glare, “you better not run me over!” If you’re crossing the street on foot, a good tactic is to always stick with a large group...or just run for your life. It feels great to be out in the *fresh* air (well, Mexico City air that is) and ride your bike but most days I come home with my heart pumping out of chest because I almost died three times on the way home.

Parque México - One of the many lovely parks near our house
Air Quality – Yes, it’s absolutely terrible, especially when you are on the busiest roads where you are basically chewing the exhaust from the passing cars. However, Mexico has some of the most beautiful public parks I have ever seen. Our street, Ave. Amsterdam used to be an old race horse track so it is one big circle and is lined with trees. Not to mention we have two lovely parks within 5 minutes of us. With trees all around us, you really feel the difference in the air. In order to combat alarming pollution rates, the city has revamped the 20 year old “Hoy No Circula” law (or the “No Drive Day” law). When implemented in the late 80s, it was meant to take old cars, that didn’t pass certain emission tests, off the road by mandating them not to drive one day a week. Last month the city revamped this law to say that all cars (no matter emission levels) would have to “dejar de circular” (or “not drive”) one day out of the week based on their license plate number. This new law has been taking over 1 million cars off the road every day. It is supposed to be a temporary 3-month emergency measure to improve the air quality but many say the government will extend it or make it permanent.

Mexico City is rough around the edges and you definitely have to grow some thick skin to get anything done in this city. There have been those days where everything seems impossible (like figuring out the washing machine, calling the internet company, figuring out where to put more minutes on your phone) and I want to break down and cry, and there are other days where I am just amazed by something (buying fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juice for 75 cents every day, watching elderly couples dancing danzón and cha cha cha in the park on Sundays, getting a free apple each week from the lady you buy your fruits and vegis from at the local market). I have had a whole roller coaster of emotions but that is all part of the adventure of throwing yourself into the unknown – seeing how you learn from your experiences and adapt to your surroundings.


“La libertad no necesita alas, lo que necesita es echar raíces” - Octavio Paz

“Si sobrevives, si persistes, canta, sueña. El viento de las horas barre las calles, los caminos. Los árboles esperan, tú no esperes. Éste es el tiempo de vivir, el único.” - Jaime Sabines

Friday, March 28, 2014

El Camino de Santiago: La Peregrina

Religiously speaking  El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James,” is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lie. The Camino has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years, and there is evidence of a pre-Christian route as well. Throughout the medieval period it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken. It was only these pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela—which could result in a “plenary indulgence,” which frees a person from the penance due for sins. The modern day pilgrim does the Camino for a variety of reasons – religious, spiritual, adventure, even to lose weight. In 2013, about 225,000 people sporting their scalloped shells hanging from their backpacks (the universally recognized symbol of the peregrino) were issued official “Compostelas” in Santiago – the official pilgrim certificate saying that you have done El Camino. However, on my short walk I met at least a handful of people who do portions of the walk every year but never go to the official “Oficina de Acogida de Peringrinos” (the official pilgrim’s welcoming office).
I also met a few people that have taken walking the Camino as a lifestyle. Like this guy from Italy who has been traveling around Europe on his bike since 2000. At the age of eight he lost half of his right leg in an accident. He has done the Camino numerous times and had a “sello” station (stamping station) set up on the side of the road – he gave us all special wax stamps, hand-done right in front of us. To be an official pilgrim you have to first get “La Credencial,” or what some people call the “Pilgrims Passport.” When you start your journey you have the local church mark the day you started and along the way you gather stamps from churches, albergues (hostels), cafes, pretty much anywhere and everywhere along the Camino. The Pilgrims Passport allows you to, a.) stay in the inexpensive albergues de peregrinos and, b.) proves to the official pilgrim’s office that you actually walked it (it’s hard to believe that some people actually try to “forge” the walk somehow just to get a certificate at the end).
I only had a week so I planned to walk the last 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) from the small town of Sarria to Santiago. This is a popular starting place because the Pilgrims Office will only issue certificates to those who have either walked at least the last 100km or biked the last 200km. There are many routes to Santiago, like ones from Portugal and Seville in southern Spain, but the most traveled one by far is El Camino Frances which starts in the small border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The journey is 780 kilometers (485 miles) and it normally takes people around 1 month to walk it. Two days before we arrived in Santiago, I met a 20 year old Korean guy named Pak who was on day 32 of walking. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish, said he was not particularly religious and was doing it by himself. When I asked why he wanted to do the walk he simply said, “because I thought it would be a fun experience.”
I purposely went on my own because they say it is something that you should experience solo. Of course, being the social butterfly who hates being alone, I made friends within the first 2 hours of walking. They were four girls from Valencia – two sisters, Eva and Noelia – and their friend Estefania. They had a week of vacation and were escaping “Las Fallas” in Valencia (a yearly celebration that consists of tourists flooding the city, parades, fireworks, partying for days, etc). They were around my age, fun, friendly and it was great to have company, as well as the constant Spanish practice. Eva was studying to be a nurse which came in handy many times on the journey - she immediately diagnosed a small rash that broke out on my leg, reminded us to wear sunscreen and stay hydrated and even went into surgery on one of the massive blisters that had engulfed Estefania’s little toe.
The girls were on a tight budget so we stayed in the most basic city run albergues. On average they cost about 6 a night, had anywhere from 30-50 bunk beds crammed into one room, showering facilities/bathrooms, area to wash and dry clothes by hand (we were lucky enough to be able to use the incredibly expensive washer/dryer by splitting the cost between the four of us) and an empty kitchen (yes, and when I mean empty I mean 2 pots, 3 spoons, 2 forks and NO knives). Well, I guess you get what you pay for. We walked, on average, 22-25km per day (or 13-15 miles). One day we did 28km and I thought I was going to die, my feet were so sore. Our days were pretty relaxed – we normally woke up at 7am and were out of the hostel by 8pm and stopped for a good breakfast to give us some energy. We would walk about 2/3 of the way and then stop for a big “menu de peregrino” (three course meals for pilgrims) at local restaurants for only 9.   
 [Note: Keep in mind that March is the off-season. During high season June-August it is a common fear that you may reach the next town and have no albergue to stay in, due to the influx of peregrinos. The summer schedule normally goes something like this – wake up at 5:30am, eat on the go and try to make it as quickly to the next town before a.) it gets too hot and, b.) before everyone else does to ensure that you get a bed). Personally, the actual schedule is rigorous enough (the physical challenge of doing so much walking, combined with checking into albergues, showering, washing clothes, looking for something to eat, trying to rest and then getting up and doing it all again tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine having, on top of all that, this stress and urgency about not having a place to sleep in the next town]. So as a personal suggestion, to all those interested in doing it, I would always try to go on the off-season (March/April or September/October) and just be prepared for the iffy weather.
There are too many small details about the trip and memories to go into depth here - it’s really something you just feel and experience rather than something you can really describe. But overall, I think the Camino taught me to appreciate the simple things in life - a hot shower, a cold soda or glass of beer, a nice conversation or the exchanging of languages, clean clothes, a warm blanket, that satisfying feeling after a large meal, laughter, a hug, the warm sun on your face, a little bit of encouragement when you need it most, a smile and “Buen Camino!” from the locals….and for that, I am grateful to El Camino.
Logistics: What to Bring?
People who are interested in doing the Camino usually want tips on packing but keep in mind my special circumstances – walking at the end of March means the weather can be very unpredictable (one day it was pouring rain and freezing, the next we were getting baked under the sun). Here is what I packed: 2 pairs of leggings, 3 pairs of underwear, 3 pairs of socks (two walking pairs and one warm resting pair), 2 long sleeved shirts, two sports bras, 1 tank top, rain jacket and rain pants, 1 warm sweatshirt, 1 pair of PJ bottoms (instead of actual checkered PJ pants I wish I would’ve brought loose athletic pants, something that I could wear out around town and sleep in while my other walking clothes were being washed/dried…I ended up wearing my rain pants around town a lot), basic toiletries including sunscreen, poncho, one pair of walking shoes, one pair of sandals (that I could wear socks in), 1 pair of flip flops for the shower, journal, camera, I-pod, sunglasses, sleeping bag (albergues do not provide sheets), pillow case (I would highly recommend bringing one, it makes your sleep so much more comfortable), phone and camera chargers, a very small purse-like thing that I could walk around town with and also to keep all of my important documents and valuables with me at all times, bandana that also could be a neck scarf (a hat would have been a good thing to bring). Every day I wore a special Spanish foot bandages called “compeed,” sort of like “moleskin” in the states, and protected all the places where I felt a blister coming on (you can buy them at any pharmacy along the Camino in all shapes and sizes). Also, our “nurse” recommended that we put Vaseline on our feet to keep them from rubbing which helped tremendously and I would highly recommend it. They say that your backpack should be about 10% of your body weight. I am about 140 pounds and my backpack weighed about 15 pounds (64 kilos, 7 kilos), it was perfect! 
Random things I wish I would’ve brought: a multi-use pocket knife (like I said, the kitchens have nothing so having a knife, a wine/bottle opener, scissors etc is extremely handy), a tiny bottle of laundry detergent to hand wash clothes with,  a walking stick or walking polls (I borrowed ones every day), black permanent marker (there were many places on the Camino where you could write your name or leave a keepsake, so if you want to participate bring a marker to write your name with or even a little memento that you could leave in different places – a piece of cloth, a small laminated picture of something important to you, anything!)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cadiz and Jerez: Flamenco Hunting

Cadiz - view from above
After weekend after weekend of studying Spanish and seeing the sights in Madrid, I decided it was time for a little bit of adventure. So, I walked down to the train station and bought a ticket to Cadiz, Andalusia, booked a hostel and waited for the weekend to arrive. Friday I had my backpack strapped on and I arrived 15 minutes early to the train station. And, to start off the grand adventure I show up at the wrong train station in Madrid (in my defense the day I bought the ticket I bought train tickets to two other places, while I was wrapped up in telling the booking agent the correct dates and times in my best Spanish she was reminding me of which trains left from which of the two main stations in Madrid). When I didn’t see my train in the “salidas” (departures) screen, my heart dropped down into my stomach – “great…” After verifying my fears at the information desk I accepted my fate and walked over to stand in the ginormous line to change my ticket (thankfully there was another train I could take in 2-1/2 hours). I was relatively calm (maybe after a few backpacking adventures you realize that everything has a strange way of working out…that there is “always another train” and that the times when things don’t go exactly as planned is when the magic happens, when stories are made). However, the elderly security guard and the lady standing behind me seemed to be a lot more worried about me catching my train. “I have 2-1/2 hours to get over there” I thought, but maybe they knew something I didn’t – could the line really take that long? Long story short, for being a young, pathetic American with her backpack in the middle of Madrid or just by the shear kindness of strangers (I like to think it was the latter), the security guard talked to a friend at the information desk who changed my ticket while the lady held my place in line. I was out in 10 minutes, new ticket in hand and bound for the correct train station.
La Mariposa
outdoor bathroom on the terrace
I arrived in Cadiz around 11:00pm and checked into my hostel, “Casa Caracol” (translation “Snail House”). The entire hostel was built from the ground up about 10 years ago and everything about it is handmade including the bunk beds and furniture. On their website they boast, “Offering much more than just a bed, we specialize in atmosphere and good vibes - yoga courses, salsa classes, Indian cooking lessons, BBQs, bike rentals and 'pimped up hot breakfasts.’ Casa Caracol is a friendly and relaxed little backpacker’s haven in the heart of old Cadiz. The caracol- meaning snail in Spanish- reflects the slow pace of things here, hence travelers tend to slow down and sense a different rhythm. We have created a beautiful rooftop garden, full of plants and hammocks, where you can snooze through the siesta or sleep the night under the stars as well as take a shower in the tropical outdoor bathroom!” Oh, and the outdoor bathroom is no joke! (even though it was way too cold to try it out). I came down for the free community breakfast and I chatted it up with some of the other backpackers over pancakes and orange juice. I walked to the beach with some American girls who were spending a semester abroad in Seville and then we all headed back to the center of town because there was a free tour with one of my favorite tour companies, “Pancho Tours,” starting at 1pm. At the meeting point I saw a group of other young people like us and they turned out to also be waiting for the tour to start. We got to talking and four of the girls were American and working their second year as “auxiliaries de conversacion” (a program sponsored by the Spanish government to bring native English speakers from the states and Canada to work in public schools as English teachers). Some of them had Spanish boyfriends there which made for a very interesting mix of people. In the end, the tour guide never showed up (very unusual for Pancho Tours might I add). The college girls bailed and went back to the beach and I stuck with my new group of friends. We walked around the city for hours chatting and soaking up the sun. We stopped and had lunch in one of the many plazas and afterwards stopped for a “café con leche” and some homemade carrot cake.
my new-found American/Spanish friends in Cadiz
The time had gotten away from me and I hurried back over to the hostel to meet my new Dutch friend, Sara (we had met at breakfast) who was working for two weeks in the hostel in exchange for room and board. She was 28 and said that a month ago she found herself a bit bored and restless in Amsterdam. She decided to leave her job and work as a volunteer throughout Europe – mostly in hostels, through the website Sara also explained to me that 2 years ago she decided to fulfill a dream of hers and backpack through South East Asia for 6 months – Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. She assured that she had become deathly ill from food poisoning only once during the 6 months (which is apparently pretty good). I could barely believe the stories that she told me. She makes my 8 days of walking the Camino de Santiago sound pretty pathetic. So anyways, we were both dead-set on seeing some show-stopping flamenco and headed north to the small town Jerez de La Frontera, which was celebrating their annual flamenco festival. When we arrived we hit the streets expecting to find booths, shows and performers littering las callejuelas (little streets), but we were thoroughly disappointed. We couldn’t find anything and whenever I stopped to ask some local would say, “Oh yeah, I think they’re having a show tonight in ‘insert name of taberna’….just follow this street down, take the second left, walk until you see the church then take a right on the 2nd or 3rd street…I forgot the name of it, but just ask around there, they should know.” We finally turned to my handy-dandy “Lonely Planet Andalusia” guide and went to the most highly rated place in town. We showed up right when it is scheduled to open thinking “ok, we’re finally going to see a show.” And, what do you know it was CLOSED. How does it make any sense that the most popular, highly rated flamenco taberna in town is CLOSED, on a Saturday night, during flamenco week! I swear, only in Jerez does this make any sense.
Feeling dejected we went to a place that was being advertised on a flyer. We were fearful that it was going to be one of those cheesy tourist shows but luckily it ended up being exceedingly authentic. The last show of the night started at midnight and of course I was starting to fade (Dominique is no night owl). We waited and waited…15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes. I guess the taberna has to pay the flamenco group a flat price no matter what, so they were waiting for more people to show up. Gosh, how hard is it for a girl to just see some flamenco! The show finally started at 12:45am and yes, in the end we forgot about all the agony and torture we had just endured. Watching live flamenco really moves your soul – the minute they start singing chills roll over your body and you feel this incredible warming sensation, like they lit a fire in your soul. You feel their passion, their love and their bitterness with every gesture, every sound and every facial expression. It is truly moving. From the words of one of the five ladies from New York that were sitting in front of us (they were there taking flamenco classes through the festival), "I feel like I just lost my virginity...again" she whispers to her friend as she fans herself after the first song.
after the hammam
After our exhausting search for flamenco and getting home at 3am the night before I decided I needed a moment of tranquility. I stopped at the Arab Hammam and had a soak in their warm baths which also included a 15 min massage. Let’s remember that much of Spain, especially Andalusia, was conquered and ruled by Arabs for 800 years and is thus enlaced with remnants of Arab culture. Well, it was nothing like the true Hammam treatment that I had in Istanbul but a wonderful, relaxing experience all the same (-:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Toledo "El Alma de España"

The past weekend my American friend Cynthia and I took a short day trip to Toledo, about a 30 minute train ride outside of Madrid. Now, we all know that Spain is home to some beautiful cities with incredible remains of old civilizations, cultures and architecture. And yet Toledo, this teeny tiny medieval fortress city, has been named the “El Alma de España” (or “the soul of Spain”).

Toledo is unique in that while modern civilization has been built up and around pieces of ancient history in cities like Barcelona, Cordoba and Granada, Toledo has remained frozen in time. Toledo was the capital of Spain until the mid-1500s until King Phillip II decided to move the royal court over to Madrid. Incredibly, the structure and lay out of the city has not changed since then and boasts some amazing medieval architecture. Its cobble-stoned streets and cozy shops make Toledo a great city to stroll through – as long as you don’t mind the inclines and declines which gave my gluts quite a workout! Sometimes Toledo is compared to Jerusalem and said to have a biblical landscape. Like Jerusalem, Toledo was a city of three religions - Christian, Jewish and Muslim (normally referred to as the “Moors” in Spanish history). The small city of 50,000 is still home to a Mosque, two Synagogues, a massive Cathedral and a monastery.

Rather than diving into Toledo’s rich political and religious history (which I highly recommend you take a look at but maybe by a professional historian instead of little old me), I wanted to dive into a different topic. In 1986 Toledo was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). I started looking at their website and the criteria for being named a World Heritage Site. I found this:
  • Represents an architectural masterpiece
  • Displays an important exchange of human values
  • Bears unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization.
  • Exemplifies a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history.
  • A traditional human settlement that is an outstanding representation of a culture, especially one that has survived despite environmental pressure.
  • Associated with events or living traditions of outstanding universal significance
  • Contains fantastic natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty
  • Illustrates major stages of earth's history
  • Captures significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the development of communities of plants and animals.
  • Contains important natural habitats for conserving biological diversity

UNESCO proudly states on their main page, heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage. Out of all the places in the world, UNESCO has given only 981 of them the honor of the World Heritage title and Toledo is one of them. ¡Impresionante!

On another note, one of the highlights of our day was “el menú del día” at one of the local restaurants. The “menu of the day” is normally a three course meal plus a glass or wine for anywhere from 10€ to 15€. They are most traditionally offered during the work week for those 9-5ers (well more like 8-7ers in Spain) who are looking for a hearty, filling, inexpensive meal. In Spain, lunch is the largest and most important meal of the day and many shops all over Spain close everyday between 2pm and 4pm to get in a hearty meal (and maybe if their lucky, catch a few zzzzs). There are still “menú del días” on the weekends but they are normally a bit pricier. Here is what we served:

First course: sopa castellaña – bread and garlic soup with cooked egg and ham (incredibly flavorful!)
Second course: Conejo al tomillo – rabbit seasoned with thyme on top of potatoes and carrots
Third course: flan casero – homemade custard

Toledo is also famous for:

* Being the largest producer of Damasquinado de Oro or “Gold Damascene” - the art of decorating non-precious metals with gold. It has roots in the Middle Ages and originates from the oriental-style artisan work done in Damascus, Syria. The craft, perfected by the Arabs and brought with them to Spain, has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries.

* Custom swords, sabers and armor – back in the Middle Ages Toledo produced a special type of steel mixed with iron. Their extraordinary hardness made of each of these Toledo swords an invincible force in the hands of an expert swordsman. All European armies knew the superior quality of Toledo steel swords and many great warriors relied only on sabers of Toledan provenance. They say that even the Japanese Samurai swords are no match (but I’m sure some Spanish guy said that).

* Mázapan – delicious candies made from almond meal, sugar and honey.