February 26, 2010

5 days in Andalucía

I've been doing lots of traveling in the past year, and very little writing about it. It's not like I've ever been a heavy writer (or worse, a real Blogger), but I'm disappointed I haven't written more down. It's actually been a pretty exciting last few months travel-wise, and my everyday life has already clouded a lot of the memories. It's mostly that I'm lazy, but it's also overwhelming to write up a trip summary that is interesting and comprehensive, and short of that, it does injustice to the whole trip. I take pictures and sometimes update my web 2.0 status, but since I blog so infrequently, the standards for content are higher. And by now, you've perhaps noticed the classic signs of maladaptive perfectionism. So I've decided to address this, pop some anti-perfectionist pills (also known as M&Ms), set my standards lower, and jot down some highlights from a recent 5-day trip I took to Andalucía, the southernmost region of Spain.

It all began in an email from Dawn last November, with something like "Hey, we're coming to visit you in Zurich in January. Let's visit somewhere else too!" Now, January isn't typically high tourist season for Europe unless you're looking to have fun in the snow, but this time worked for me and it worked for her, so we were determined to make the best of it. After going through a long list of places, we picked a target of southern Spain, which we calculated as having some probability greater than zero of warmth and sun.

Dawn and Zac arrived in Zurich, we had an obligatory Swiss dinner of melted cheese, and then parted ways briefly as they went skiing with some friends of Zac's family. Loic and I went to Portugal for a weekend, and then we all met up in Seville.

Our schedule consisted of 2.5 days in Seville, 1 day trip to Cadiz from Seville, 1 full day in Granada, and then 1 day in Cordoba. This was enough time to hit all the "must-see" tourist destinations in each city and pretend we got a taste of Spain, but I could have easily spent a month in this region and still felt unsatisfied. Alas, I'm still working on accrued U.S. vacation time, and that means that I have to try and fit 25% of a country into 5 days. And this is entirely impossible, but I did leave with a few impressions:

Sin carne, sin pescado. Spain, like much of the rest of Europe, hasn't yet totally embraced the vegetarian diet. Most entrees have meat, and if a menu does have a non-meat section, it usually just means has some shrimp or chicken it. One evening, Dawn and I both ordered a salad with tuna. Being a vegeterian, she repeatedly asked for it "sin carne, sin pescado" (no meat, no fish), to the point we felt quite confident the waiter understood the message. Upon receiving the salad, we realized it was only a partial success. Instead of the palm-sized piece of tuna I had in my salad, she had just a few small pieces scattered in the salad, soo there was clearly an attempt at something less meaty going on. We were amused. Actually, I think it was just me that was amused. I can just imagine the kitchen trying to put together her order...

Cook: "What do you mean no meat or no fish? Are you sure she ordered that?"
Waiter: "Yes, she repeated this three times. I don't understand what it means either."
Cook: "Well, it sounds like she would want the salad without meat or fish, but that doesn't make sense. Who would want a meal without meat or fish?"
Waiter: "Yes, which is why I asked her to repeat. She just kept saying no meat and no fish. Maybe you can just give her this salad without putting any meat on it?"
Cook: "I can't give someone a salad with no meat at all! Here, put a little of this tuna on it."
Waiter: "Done!"

Oranges, oranges, everywhere. They really are everywhere. It's so cool to see orange and lemon trees sprouting like weeds. This is probably because I come from the Midwest, where only wizard gardeners could grow a citrus fruit tree (in warm and controlled captivity).

High-viscosity chocolate. Spanish hot chocolate is often a morning beverage with churros or warm drink during the day. It's actually not a drink at all, but a melted chocolate bar in a cup. It seems so wrong, but out of dedication to the full cultural experience, I drank it all. Happily.

Bull's tail. All my co-travelers were a bit squeamish at the thought of eating bull tail. I can't blame Dawn (again, diagnosed vegetarian), but I was excited. A matador can win the tail of a bull as a trophy if he is especially good (and the tail and both ears if he is excellent), so by some measure, a bull tail is kind of special. Anyways, it ended up tasting just like Ox tail, which is typical enough in Polish fare. And like Ox tails, yummy!

Rosemary scam. Every city has their scam, and in Seville, the most prominent scam that I saw was the rosemary scam. A gypsy woman will come to you and try to give you a sprig of rosemary for "suerte" (luck) or "un regalo" (a gift). If you take it, she might try to read your fortune, and then immediately expect some payment. She will get her payment, even if it means following you to an ATM to withdraw some cash. I didn't fall for this myself, but saw others left with a generic future forecast and no change to pay for it.

Flamenco and the flying button. We went to two Flamenco shows in Seville. The first was at La Carboneria, a dive bar with music and a free flamenco show performed by enthusiasts every night. The second show was by professionals (and thus, cost money) at Auditorio Alvarez Quintero. It was interesting to see both performances and compare. Though the second show was noticeably more polished, the intensity in the dancers and singers from both was mesmerizing. I couldn't stop looking at how tight and serious their facial expressions were and the control of their every dance move. Speaking of tight, the professional male dancer's shirt was two sizes too tight and mid-dance, his shirt started unbuttoning in what might be officially described as a churro-induced wardrobe malfunction. There was no way to recover gracefully. I felt guilty, but it was hilarious.

My pictures describe in more detail all of the impressive things I saw (and ate) on this trip. Finally, I'd like to take this sentence to thank Lonely Planet, which did an excellent job of planning our itineraries, Hostel World, which made it easy to find shelter, Mother Nature, for delivering unexpectedly sunny weather, and Loic, for being our free Spanish translation service throughout the trip.

Update [April 19, 2010]: Oh crap, I totally forgot to thank some of my Spanish friends that helped me plan this trip.

First, thanks to Rocío and Manuel for actually suggesting an awesome and specific itinerary for our travels that we ended up mostly following. They also reminded me to buy tickets to Alhambra early and shared a very cool Andalucia map that highlights things to see and places to eat, which you should check out if you make plans to visit this region.

Second, I need to thank Jose, who also gave me some awesome travel tips, but mostly for the very insightful comments about handling Spaniards. I'm going to share some of his wisdom here:
  • If you don't want to be ripped off, don't dress like an American. You know the uniform: baseball cap, shorts, sandals and "University of Northern Dakota" shirts. The way you normally dress is Ok.
  • Waiters are not rude to you because you are American. They are rude to everybody. Very egalitarian. They are doing you a favor by serving you, so don't push it. The flip side is that you don't tip the bastards. Zero.
  • Don't ask for sangria at a restaurant. Sangria is what you do with your friends when you want to get drunk and don't have a penny. No restaurant for non-tourists or general grown-ups would have that. Beer is so so, but wine is good and five times cheaper than here [U.S.]
  • Spanish cities look like having been hit by an neutron bomb after 1:00 pm. The only living creatures around are Japanese and American tourists wondering where the hell everybody is. Signs of life resume around 4:00 pm. You don't see people in the streets at 2:00 pm. You see people in the streets at 2:00 am. Don't try to have dinner before 9:30 pm.
  • People are temperamental in Spain. Which means that they make big things out of nothing. You might see people with red faces arguing loudly and gesticulating. This is normal conversation. They may be deciding which movie to watch in the evening. You may hear blasphemies. Still normal conversation.
  • For most people, their town is the center of the world. Seville is different. People there think Seville is the center of the observable universe, and several dimensions of hyper-space. And don't worry, they will let you know.
  • People might think you are Spanish because of your looks. Don't be surprised if people talk to you in Spanish. Guys will probably try to hit on you. In that case:
    • If you are interested, you have it easy. Just talk about soccer. There is only one case in recorded history of a Spaniard that was not interested in soccer [me]. Just one caveat: there are two different soccer teams in Seville, and they hate each other. If you get them wrong you are in trouble.
    • If you are not interested, you have to be explicit. Subtle hints, like looking at your watch, are not gonna work. Spanish people don't get hints. Just tell the person "LEAVE ME ALONE NOW". It's Ok. This is not rude. You have to try really hard to be rude in Spain. I don't think you can succeed without proper training.
  • Finally and most important, if you turn a corner and see some horns running towards you, run!


Manuel said...

Oh, I thought that there was more help than what lonely planet offered?

I guess I must feel offended now :P

Asirap said...

Oh crap, I forgot!!! This is what happens when I post to my blog so long after the fact. Ok, updated. And yes, you should feel offended because you guys helped more than LonelyPlanet, but I also know you are forgiving :)

pimalai said...

That was quite the long post. But still, it was informative enough for me to seriously think about planning my own 5 day vacation to Andalucia.