Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quick update on my travels

Hey guys,
I wanted to get in a post before I left on vacation, but it just wasn't in the cards.  All I have time for right now is a quick update, but I promise there will be a post to follow...sometime.  Hopefully soon, but probably not until I get back to Spain.  Pues, I had a nice booze augmented Christmas Eve and was lucky enough to spend Christmas day with a Spanish family.  It was both wild and pleasant and I'll be sure to include my usual long description later on.

Aside from the Christmas festivities there is not too much more about which to hold you in suspense.  I had a Christmas dinner/party with my fellow teachers.  Oh yeah.  One more thing.  I'm in Rome!

My flight and everything went smoothly and here I am in the heart of ancient history and Catholicism.  I've been here for a day and I can say that Rome is as expected.  The city is chock-full of so many ancient wonders that you almost get tired of marvelling at them.  That aside, it is a place everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.

Aaaaaand that's all you get for now.  I'm on a friend's computer so I can't upload any pictures.  I'll be in Rome until the 4th then I'm going to Dublin.

More news to follow,

Stay tuned,


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Longest Puente

Hello again everyone,

These past weeks' adventures revolve around what I'm going to preemptively call the Longest Puente.  There were two holidays on the 6th and the 8th of December so the Spanish just decided to lump it all together into one big vacation.  I normally don't work Fridays, so in conjunction with the holidays, I had Friday through Wednesday off!  It was such a long weekend that this post turned out equally long.  I apologize, but maybe I can keep you interested long enough to read through it.  =)

Before we get to the heart of the action, how about a little back-story? Ha, I knew you'd say yes, anyway...In addition to working at the school, I started teaching private English classes.  I only have two so far, but I hope to find a few more after the Christmas holidays.  My first student is Manuel.  His father, Jesús (that's "hey-Zeus" not Jesus The Son) is my principle/boss' brother.  My second student is Jorge, who is Manuel's cousin and the son of Manuel's Mom's sister.  Lost yet?  Yeah, I know its a bit confusing but what can you do.  Family relations are always hard to explain.  Moving on.  Jesús and his wife, Valle, invited me to go along with them during the puente to visit Valle's family in La Palma del Condado in Huelva.  Huelva is one of the "counties" of Andalucia and is around a two-three hour drive from La Línea.  They offered to treat me to everything and all I would have to do is speak English with the kids and help them out a bit.  I hadn't planned any other trips and what could be better than spending the holidays traditional Spanish style? In my opinion virtually nothing, so I agreed.

They picked me up on Friday, the 3rd, around six in the evening.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Manuel is six years old and Jorge is four.  Valle and Jesús have another son, also named Jesús, who is two.  I got the pleasure of sitting between the two kids and we enjoyed a Sponge Bob-filled ride to La Palma.  When we arrived at La Palma, I was impressed.  It is a little pueblo, very old, but not in anyway decrepit.  Most of the small towns I have been through, if they are not tourist locations, have dirtier streets and some evidence of lower economic level.  La Palma, however, was very crisp, clean, and enchanting.  As soon as we arrived, I also realized that I left my camera in La Línea.  I was in a bit of a rush to pack and I left it on the desk.  Que tristeza y mala suerte.  Oh well, as luck would have it, the Spanish love their pictures so I'll be stealing some of them for your viewing pleasure.

My first piece of criminal evidence is of the church in La Palma.  This picture, and most of those to follow, was taken by Jorge's mom, Belen. Those not taken by Belen were caught by Jesús on his camera phone.

Next in line is the Teatro de La Palma.

The streets of La Palma.

The victim of my crimes, the foto-artista herself.

And her sister Valle.

Upon entering the town, we drove to Valle's uncle's house who lives in the same plaza as the Teatro de La Palma.  Their uncle, Tito (uncle) Kaska, is a sweet old man who lives by himself in the bottom floor of a huge house.  Here he is.

After meeting with Tito Kaska, the family and I went out with him for a traditional Spanish dinner.  The dinner was, of course, excellent.  We had an appetizer of what I'm pretty sure were cooked octopus eggs and I had pork for dinner.  After throughly stuffing myself, we returned to Tito's house.  At the house I met more of the cousins and one who used to teach Spanish in Jonesboro, Ar.  It is amazing how we live in a world that is simultaneously inexplicably huge and incredibly small.  Anyway, I had a nice reflective chat with her and her husband about Arkansas and the many differences of the United States. The husband said the most surprising thing to him was the difference in size between the United States and Europe.  In comparison, everything in the States is larger.  The cars are larger, the portions are larger, the towns are spread out, the houses are bigger, everything.  It was so surprising to them that you could not get around without a car.  After our mutual cultural revelations, we said goodbye, and the family and I headed off to bed.

The next morning, Jesús and I got up early, and grabbed breakfast at a café.  Traditional Spanish breakfast is one or two halves of a small toasted baguette accompanied by jamón and olive oil with coffee to drink.  We brought breakfast back for the kids then headed to the Sierra mountains to the north of Huelva.  Throughout the weekend, everyone I met recounted to me the wonders of Huelva.  It is the southwest most province of Spain.  To the west is Portugal, to the east is the city of Sevilla, to the north the Sierra mountain range, and to the South are kilometers and kilometers of untouched beach.

 The Sierra mountains are famous for none other than the production of jamón.  The Spanish tradition is to eat a leg or shoulder of jamón during the Christmas holidays.  Jesús and I went to pick the jamón rations for his family and their relatives who requested something.  On the drive up, Jesús recounted to me some of the history of the area.  In the 1800´s many British lived in the area and set up mines to extract the land´s minerals.  One example is the river that runs through the mountains, el rio tinto, which is a red-orange hue because of its high iron content.

The jamón factory we arrived at was a family operated warehouse filled with jamón and other cured pork products.

Here I am in front of some jamón.  Well, jamón as seen before the curing process.

After it has been butchered, the meat is left to cure.

I´m not sure exactly what part of the animal this is, but its used as a base for soups and stocks.
Here are various types of cured sausages.  Salchichon, murcilla, chorizo, and some I can´t name.

The people at the factory were nice enough to show us around and afterwards one guy told us the entire story of the business.  I think even by Spanish standards that guy liked to talk, which I think is saying something.  I wish I had a picture of him, because he really was a sight to behold.  He was a large, hairy, and rather hammy in fact, looking guy and was dressed only in a shirt, jeans, and butcher´s overcoat.  As you can tell by the pictures above, I was wearing a jacket and multiple layers, and was still freezing.  This guy had his shirt open and sleeves rolled up like it was the middle of summer.   Anyway this is what he told us, in summary.  The entire curing process is the result of three factors.  Salt, the Sierra´s cold, and the family´s elbow -grease.  He runs a small business which carries its share of problems.  Similar to problems in the U.S., he has to compete with larger operations, rising product costs, and the organic food movement.  He offers organic ham, but usually does not sell it in his warehouse.  The price of an organic ham leg is around 400 euro, whereas a normal leg costs around 150 euro.  The price of organic legs are so high that its almost exclusively bought by large companies and corporations.  He also told us of his passion for quality, and the possible future of jamón in America.  Its a hard product to sell because the U.S. government requires the ham to be de-boned, which diminishes its quality.  

After these extensive stories we finally loaded up the meat and started back to La Palma.  All in all we made off with two ham legs, one shoulder, and around 20 kilos of chorizo, murcia, and salchichon which was to be divided among the extended family.  On the way back to town, we stopped at a roadside bar for a few tapas and a beer.  Since the Sierra de Huelva is one of the centers of jamón production, we were able to try some rare dishes.  I sampled pig ears and another dish which I believe was sweetbreads.  They were both pretty good, although the texture was odd.  The ears were a bit chewy and the sweetbreads felt like they were perforated with tiny balls of cartilage or something.  All in all, I was just excited to try something strange and new.  

Back in La Palma, we went to a relative´s house for lunch. Lunch was a huge family gathering that began with delicious appetizers of grilled meat and then paella! 

Here we are enjoying the fiesta.

And the star of the show.

After paella, the experience was concluded by a shot of sweet grape liquor and cocktails.  Wow.  All I can say is wow.  These people really know how to eat.  This meal was a prime example of Spanish hospitality and the days to come. In almost every place I went into I was handed a drink or a tapa and introduced to everyone there.  Everyone in the family was incredibly nice and I got a ton of Spanish practice.  But the weekend isn´t over yet!  

After the meal and some nice conversation, I waddled to the car to go with Jesús and the kids to the movies.  By this time we had accumulated Manuel, Jorge, and four of their cousins.  The movie of choice for the night was the Chronicles of Narnia.  All things considered it wasn't a bad movie.  Nothing special, just more Spanish practice.  

The rest of the night found me eating a small dinner and relaxing with the family.  After all the day's adventure and managing the kids I was pretty exhausted.  Tito Kaska invited me to go out with him, but I declined with the promise that manaña I would surely salir.  

The next morning we got up and had our normal breakfast of a tostada con jamón.  After breakfast Jesús and I took some of the kids out to Big Ben, which is basically a giant playpen.  We checked them in then walked to Carrefour, which is like a huge Walmart, to look at some potential Christmas presents. 

Here I am with the cripple crew.
From left to right: Patricio (a cousin), Manuel, Jesús, Jorge, and some random American.
Here's the effect of Big Ben on a six year old.

As you can see, they were pretty excited to be let loose.  We got a café after the short shopping trip and let the kids play for a few hours.  Once we pried them away from the festivities we headed back into town for some lunch.

For lunch Jesús dropped Jorge and I off at the Taberna Fonsi.  I learned that this little bar is Tito Kaska´s second home.  He works two buildings down the street and comes to Fonsi for breakfast every morning.  

Here it is. 

And the owner of the tavern with his father and Belen.

At the tavern I walked into another family gathering in the making.  Tito Kaska handed me a beer and introduced me to more of the extensive family.

Here are more cousins, except the big guy on the left.
I forgot the name of the tall guy on the left, but he was from Holland.  He spoke a handful of languages, including English, and I had a nice Spanglish conversation with him.  Apparently he had traveled extensively in the U.S. and around the world, but Huelva was his favorite place.  He was a very nice guy and gave me some good advice.  Think of all the things that you like to do, make a list, and find a job that fulfills that criteria.  If you can´t find such a job, then create one.  

Following Spanish tradition, we had some tapas with our drinks.  The choice of the day was habas con poleo, which were large baked beans.  They looked like giant pinto beans, but you didn´t eat the skin.  You bit the end, then squeezed out the meat.  Strange method aside, they were delicious! 

Jorge loved the habas con poleo and showed me how it was done. 

The character of Taberna Fonsi.

After Fonsi´s we walked back to the house for another traditional Spanish lunch.  Valle´s aunt and family live above Tito Kaska and treated us to a delicious garbanzo soup.  I met Valle´s niece, Maria, who goes to university in Sevilla.  

After lunch we relaxed for a few hours before deciding to spend the evening going to see the Belen (there might be an accent missing somewhere in there).  Not to be confused with Valle's sister, the Belen is a live nativity scene.  Nativity scene is a little misleading.  It was a two-story nativity village.  

The photos from the village are limited, but here's a taste of what it was like.

Yes, that is a live donkey.  And yes, that is a kid dressed up as an old man.  The whole scene was indoor and filled with kids dressed as everything from villagers to Mary to the Three Wise Men.  They were each in a small area pretending to be cobblers, blacksmiths, merchants, ect.  All complete with live animals.  It was a wild little time.  

We went back to La Palma after the Belen, ate dinner at the aunt's house again, and then Belen, Maria (the niece), and I decided to go out for a night on the town.  The night out was a blast.  We had a few drinks at one bar, then went to another to meet up with the guy from Holland and his friend.  The second bar, I was told, is where they always go to end the night.  What made the experience so fun was talking in Spanish.  After the Hollander left, it was just the two girls and I, and we talked until the bar closed at four a.m.  We talked about life, politics, pregnancy, childbirth, and all that exciting stuff that I never thought I would be able to discuss in another language.  Looking back, I wasn't stopping to think of a word or how to translate something.  I was just going.  Its amazing how much you know when you don't stop to think about it.  

After such a late night, I slept in the next morning and had another easy breakfast.  This time with Tito Kaska at Taberna Fonsi.  It was Monday and time to return to La Línea.  We said our goodbyes to the family and before we left town, we stopped at two bodegas.  One bodega produced wine and vinegar and the other produced brandy and vinegar.  

Here I am at the brandy Bodega.

One amazing thing about this brandy is that its cured for a minimum of sixty years!  The casks as you can see are huge.  Some were as tall as me!  

Before going home, we stopped for one more lunch and a short adventure in Sevilla.

Valle, Manuel, and Jesús.

Valle, Manuel, and I.

It started to rain soon after we arrived so we were only granted a few hours in the city.  I had been in Sevilla before for my orientation and this short detour only made me want to return to see more of it.  The architecture, and the Giralda (the name of the church) in particular, were amazing.  I felt like I could just stand and stare up at it for hours.  Without a doubt, I will return soon.  

The boys and I at the Giralda.

Well that´s all I´ve got for today.  For those of you who made it through, congratulations.  My Christmas vacation goes from December 23rd to January 9th.  I´m really excited because I plan to spend Christmas in La Línea, fly to Rome on the 27th, then fly to Ireland from Rome January 4th.  I have friends in both Rome and Ireland so I plan to stay with them and hopefully get a local´s perspective on the area.  I´ll try to do a Christmas/holiday post for y'all before I fly out, but I'm not going to promise anything.  Life, as you know, can lift you up and set you down as it pleases and not always allow time for blog posts.  If I don't see you, I wish all of you the best, and happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A birthday in Spain, trip up The Rock, and wayward travelers.

So here we are again,

Life so far has been just carrying me along.  Its hard to believe that I haven't written a post in almost two weeks.  I have a lot of stuff to catch you guys up on, so here we go!

The first thing was my 22nd birthday in Spain.  When I woke up this is what I found in the kitchen:

And yes, as you might have guessed, this is in fact a shoulder of jamón. My roommates are very sweet and this was an unexpected gift from two vegetarians.  Jamón is a type of cured ham that can come from the shoulder or the leg of an Iberian hog.  It is a staple of Spanish cuisine, and they are obsessed with it.   There are schools where one can learn how to cut and serve jamón.  Needless to say I was incredibly excited at the prospect of carving up my own ham and spent the next three or four hours experimenting. 

Here I am, posed and all, in front of the shoulder with a jamón-specific fillet knife. 

Once the outer skin and fat has been removed, the jamón is served as thin almost transparent slices called lonchas.  Here's my first attempt at slicing.  They came out a little thicker than I had hoped, but oh well.  Practice, practice, practice.

The rest of my birthday was very nice and very relaxing.  We went over to a friend's apartment for tapas and drinks, then out to a few bars.  I don't have too much to tell from the night.  Just an easy night in Spain with great wine and great people.  The jamón was truly the highlight and made the day.

After my birthday celebrations, we decided to finally head over to Gibraltar and make a Sunday trip up the old rock.

The Rock of Gibraltar is a little different from what you would expect.  Part of the city is built around the base of the rock.  The upper, steeper parts are reserved for tourism.  When you walk up towards the top, you walk on streets and pass by houses that run right up to the gates of reserve. It was a little surprising, but we did get some nice pictures out of it.

This first one is overlooking the lower part of the town.

This is a glimpse of the Dark Continent and several ships coming into port.

Once you reach the gates of the reserve you have to pay a fee depending on what you want to do.  The cheapest was a walking pass for 50 pence.  After that it costs more for a car, guided tour, or a pass for the war tunnels and St. Michael's cave.  The tunnels and caves pass was pretty expensive, so we just opted for the walking pass.

Here's some touristy stuff that you see right as you walk into the reserve.  I couldn't get a good picture of it so the bottom part is a little cut off.  Perdóname. 

Once you pass by the main tourist candy, the footpath up the rock becomes much more wild and wonderful.
I felt like I was walking into the jungle.

The way up was a bit rocky and in the spirit of Europe; at your own risk.  

The path eventually turned into some steep steps.  Here is Rose on such steps, the first of our wayward travelers.  

 The path up the back side of the rocks ends in the Mediterranean Steps, which pass through to the other side of the mountain.  The guy here is Nate- a fellow English teacher.  

Gibraltar is home to many plants that are unique to the rock's environment.  Here are some wild olives, which aren't unique, just a rare sight in other places.  

Following the Steps ever higher leads to the rock's summit and some truly breathtaking, and windy, views.

The clouds over La Línea and Algeciras. 

We kept looking out over the bay and eventually the clouds started to break.

The clouds broke over the ocean, but stayed over Spain.  From where we were it looked like the peaks of the Rock had split them in two.

 Oh and yeah, the apes.  They didn't interest me that much so I only got one good shot of them. They would climb on people if you put your arm down, but you couldn't touch them or they would bite you.  Like nature pacified.  It was a weird thing.  The whole situation felt really odd to me, so I just preferred to stick to the views and the trees. 


And that's really about all I can say for Gibraltar.  It has certain special moments but, in general, its just a weird place.  The cultural mix of British, Spanish, and African is something that you just have to see for yourself. 

The other breaking news I have for you is that our apartment is slowing turning into a traveler's hostel.  We have had a friend of the family, Rose, stay with us for the past two weeks.  She has been hitch-hiking across Europe for almost two years and is planning to head into Africa before returning home to Arkansas.  Two other travelers, Dominic and Amylin, came in last night and are staying with us until tomorrow.  And on top of all this, we have plans to host three Polish girls in December via couchsurfing.org.  It sounds a little crazy, but it has and continues to be a fantastic learning experience.  Rose, Dominic, and Amylin all travel virtually exclusively by hitch-hiking.  Hearing their stories and how they live has enlightened me to a whole new possibility of travel.  I mean, who wouldn't want to travel across Europe for little to no money?  Not only that, but the opportunities to meet interesting people are endless.  Amylin and Rose have both hitched as lone women, so its not incredibly dangerous.  They have had a few rough encounters, but most of them have been in poor countries.  

It is such a revolutionary thing to hear all these stories from people only a few years older than I am.  Every time we talk, the world gets larger and larger, and I want to see more and more of it.  

What to do?  What to do?  Too many possibilities.  

Until next time,


Friday, November 12, 2010

Weekend in Ronda and La Roda

Hello again everyone,

Welcome to another later-than-usual post.  I think this Spanish lifestyle thing is really getting to me.  I'm taking time just to take time.  Its pretty hard work.  Anyway, on to my excursion from the previous weekend.
This last weekend the three of us decided to rent a car again and take a trip to visit our friend Bianca in La Roda.  The town she lives in is a pueblito of about 1500 people.  Its around a two and a half hour drive from our town and the best part is that a town called Ronda is on the way there.  Ronda is this great historical town that we kept hearing about.  We would ask Spaniards about places to go, or about their favorite places to go, and Ronda was almost always in the list.  

That's all the spoilers you're going to get.  Now on to the pictures!

This first one is of our new fiesta-green chariot.  They gave us another Ford, but this one was miles above our previous car. It was a lot smaller, got better fuel mileage, and it was a diesel! When I first started it up, I thought it was a little loud, but I put it off as just being some weird Spanish thing.  I didn't realize it was a diesel until I stopped to get gas, and I was really surprised.  It had good acceleration and it was pretty quiet.  Another great thing is that diesel fuel is about 20 cents cheaper than regular gas. So yeah! Here is it:

We drove up to La Roda Friday afternoon and went into Ronda on Saturday.  There are two ways to get to La Roda from our town and we decided to take the scenic route on the way there.  One quick word on the drive.  Crazy.  Madness. Insanity.  Another synonym of crazy.  That's all I'm going to say.  No, but seriously, you hear of all those wild Europeans that fly around steep mountain curves with virtually no speed limit.  That was the drive to Ronda.  It was almost constantly uphill with really sharp curves.  I take curves faster than most people and I was taking them at 50 km/hr, which felt fast, but the speed limit was 80!  I don't know how those people do it.

Anyway, once we got through those mountains we drove into Ronda.

From here we ditched the car and decided to walk around and explore.

Here are some shots of the park:

And some peacocks in a cage:

A little meditative stone circle:

And a shot of the boardwalk with a taste of the view to come

And the view from Ronda! The town is on a cliff and looks out over the landscape for kilometers and kilometers.  This one is with two of my travel companions:

And the lovely Bianca looking out:
Just a straight view of the mountains:

Here is a nice sideways image of the Plaza de Toros entrance.  I'm not sure why it came out sideways.  It was taken this way, then I rotated it, and even saved it as a new file.  Something apparently gets lost in translation in the hard-drive to blog path.  If this causes any neck pain it should make you feel better to know that this plaza is one of the oldest operational plazas in Spain.  See?  Now the pain is gone.  On to the next picture.

A little farther into the city we found another plateau with an equally breathtaking view of the landscape at just a slightly different angle.

To the right and over the rail:

We were lucky enough to be serenaded by this flamenco guitarist while enjoying the view.

Here is a look at the older part of the city:

The Puente Nuevo is this fantastic stone bridge that spans the gorge and connects the two sides of Ronda.

Here's another of those annoying sideways shots.  This one is of the bridge.  If anyone has an idea of how to fix this, don't hesitate. 

This next shot was taken from the bridge overlooking the city.  

This next picture was taken by an older student of Meg's that met up with us.  She was a really fun lady and showed us around the town.  We found this excellent leather shop, where Meg and Bianca each bought a backpack for around 40 euros.  They had some excellent looking jackets and I think if I find myself with some excess change I might go pick one up.  Almost all of their products were handmade in Ronda.  Anyhow, The Ronda Traveling Crew:

This last shot of Ronda was taken from the bridge overlooking the other side of the city.

After our Ronda excursion we went back to Bianca's town, La Roda, and took a walk out towards the olive groves.

Her town is nestled in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges.

That is the end of my latest trip.  I hope you guys enjoyed the photos.  I'm beginning to get used to the whole camera thing and each trip it seems like I come back with more and more photos.  Ronda was inexplicably beautiful and I hope that these view shots can at least give you a hint of what it was like to be there.  The experience of sitting on a terrace, while being serenaded by a flamenco guitar, and looking out over the valley was transcendent.  We sat out there for around 30 minutes and I'm sure I could have been there for hours.  It truly made me appreciate what an opportunity this has been.  

Many thanks to all those who helped me get here,

Until next time,