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All content copyright 2010 by Chelsea Biondolillo. Seriously.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Day 11: Tenerife - Anaga Rural Park

Imagine a National Park that includes a pioneer town, where everyone who lives there (and no, they are not there for you to gawk at, they live there) grows their food and ranches and farms using a blend of traditional and modern methods--for example, no new buildings but a portable milking machine for the goats is okay. This is Anaga.

This "rural" park includes some vestiges of laurisilva forests, a forest system that dates back to the Pleistocene. There are dragon trees, cardone cactus, and laurels and pines. There are euphorbiums and aeoniums. There are also goat herders and fisher people. We hiked from the top of Anaga, nearly down to the sea today. And in a few hours, we will ring in the new year with 12 grapes.

I ache all over and I am cheek-flushed with wine made here at Mayco. It's good to be here.

geek girl climbs down a mountain

Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 10: Tenerife - bananas, sheep, and the water problem

Today I ate a banana fresh off a tree. That's some good stuff! I also walked on a black sand beach, chased some of the sorriest sheep I've ever seen (owing to their being woolless), and gained about 5 pounds from all of the food that the school keeps feeding us.

The Canary Islands provide all of Spain with bananas and before being outbid by Morocco, sent tomatoes to the UK, Spain, and Germany. Those are their only two exports. While they also grow some papayas and make a (supposedly) delicious goat cheese, those stay on the island. Tenerife imports around 90% of its food.

Fresh water is a problem. There are many convolutions to the process of mining, distributing, and paying for water rights, and some "black business" in the background. The wells (caves/mines) are privately owned, though the water itself is a public resource.

All this and more I learned today, and both my brain and belly are overfull. Tomorrow, we hike through a cloud forest and go to a goat farm (cheese right off the tree, I hope). The weather, the scenery, the views--all have been remarkable. Even the few moments it rained, it was such a gentle and cool rain, it was beautiful.

Some of the Mayco school cabins

Looking down at a small waterfront village

Canarians and the British prefer a larger tomato than the mainland Spaniards

At the banana farm

Short-haired lambs running frantically from our approach

Birds of Paradise are all over the place

Toes in the Atlantic, on the east side of the island, facing Africa

Windy, cool, perfect

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 9: La Laguna, Tenerife - the Mayco school

This a.m., after a train ride that I can only describe right now in French (quelle horrible!) because it is still too raw, like the moments after you jam your toe into a bed leg that you misjudged because the blankets were hanging too far down on one side--you know that shuddering moment where you just need to stand still and take really deep breaths and maybe shake your hands out, like they're wet?--I met up with the rest of my classmates to fly to the island of Tenerife.

It maybe wasn't THAT bad of a train ride, but it was pretty awful. The flight was a surreal extension somehow, with my simultaneous desire to and inability to sleep and the whiny child from the train (all night, ALL NIGHT, he whiiiiiiined in Spanish about obscure parts of his body hurting and the seat being uncomfortable and other, less clear though still unbearable things) being traded out for two squealing just-past toddler sisters that ran up and down and up and down and up and down the full length of the plane for the duration of the captain has turned off the fasten seat belts sign and you are now free to move about the cabin time. And someone, always someone behind me who must be the approximate dimensions of a circus bear with the constant need to spin in their seat, like a shark who must undulate or drown, always pressing and rustling up against the flimsy fabric of the seat back, straining the joints of both of our connections to the plane (or train) floor.

This is not my favorite part of travel.

But holy shit, once we got here? It's a freaking paradise. The hosts at our school, the Mayco School of English, have been beyond kind and attentive--we are all stuffed to the gills with an abundant lunch of tapas and then a three course dinner. We have been cautioned against drinking the tap water but assured we should all take hot showers for as long as we'd like. Because no one wanted coffee or tea after dinner, our chef will be shopping for "night tea" tomorrow, such is the breadth of their generosity.

Here are some of their own pictures from the grounds: Gallery. It's like summer sleep-away camp in the tropics (but with only 2 or 3 people in each bunk house--I'm currently unpacked lavishly across three bunk beds). Tomorrow we visit a sheep farm and a banana plantation in the morning, and after lunch we will get a lecture on some Canarian and Tenerife history. I know for now, this bunk bed is about the most awesome place I can't wait to be. Hasta mañana.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Day 8: Barcelona to Madrid

Okay. I didn't plan today well at all. Hotel check out time is 12 (no ecceptiones) and the train leaves at 10 tonight. I have two large backpacks. I had the hotel hold my bags for a couple of extra hours, while I walked Las Ramblas (not nearly as impressive as the tourism guide would have you believe) and then had my last meal in Barcelona at the famous Cal Pep. For just a few tapas, the price was steep, but they were damn good. Then I got my luggage and fancied I'd walk to the station through an interesting looking part of town. I made it a third of the way before I caved and grabbed a subway. This shit is heavy to walk across town.

So, that leaves me with several hours until the train gets here. The only internet is at McDonalds. I can't use the club lounge until 8 pm. Four hours away. More lessons learned for next time. Good news is that I should be able to sleep on the train.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Day 7: Barcelona la ciudad de ciencias y los artes

Do you remember that black and white Twilight Zone where they put this crazy mark on your forehead if you break the law that means no one can acknowledge you? The mark burns through hats and can't otherwise be hidden. The "prisoner" can go anywhere and do anything--but no one can talk to him or even act like they can see him. He's stoked at first--he goes into the women's spa and sits in the sauna with them--no one can stop him. But the novelty wears off when he realizes they all look scared out of the corners of their eyes.

That's extreme. But not being able to speak Spanish very well has its distinct disadvantages. Today involved several difficult conversations, first at the botanical garden and then at the ornithological institute. I recorded the interviews, since I had to work so hard just to listen. I'm not sure if I got more dead ends or if there is a good story in there or not. There are lizards, pine trees, and dragons. Who knows. There's the idea of island adaptation and successive migrations. There's the interesting story of Colonial Spain's influence and the trouble with goats and the benefits of fire. Are any of these interesting enough for an essay? I have no idea. But everyone today seemed to know someone else who could help me much more than they, someone who was, so sorry, nowhere nearby or available.

I did have a fantastic lunch at a wonderful non-touristy restaurant. I asked the office manager at the ornithology institute--who spoke no English--for a recommendation, and she did not disappoint. No one at the restaurant spoke English either, but the bartender was very theatrical in his explanations of my options. I had a fantastic black rice and mussel paella and fried white fish of some kind. Also amazing olives and lots of vino tinto y agua con gas. Ultimately though, the day beat me. I am exhausted and frustrated with my research. I usually have too high of standards for my work product, so I am hoping that's the case here. I'll only know for sure after I get back.

I'm not sure whether or not I'll have internet from here on out, but my fingers are crossed. In the meantime, some highlights from today...

View from the MNAC (museum of Catalunya art) on the way to the Jardi Botaníc

The Strawberry Tree (endangered on Los Canarios)

Several small Dragon Trees with a couple of large Phoenix Palms. The Dragon Tree is actually a monocot, rather than a tree--a grass with a fat stem. Since it has no rings, the age of individual specimens was often grossly overestimated.

The best goddamn paella ever. Seriously. I will dream of it.

Casa Batlló in the super fancy part of town, with Louis Vitton and Prada shops. The line was long and the cost to enter, high. In other words, this is the only view I got of Gaudí. Next trip will be an art trip.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 6: Barcelona by Gaudí and by foot

My dogs are barking, man. Like woah. I feel like I walked all over the city--I have blisters on my pinkie toes. I was a turísta today, and still only saw a tiny fraction of what this city has to offer. And yes, still in love with Barcelona.

Today I saw a bit of Gaudi's Barcelona. I decided not to fight the crowds to get into the Familia Sagrada, and instead took pics all around it.

Under construction: 100 years later
 Then I took the metro to the bottom of the big hill at the top of which is Gaudi's Parc Güell. It looks like a big park on the map, but one can't appreciate it's... rigors without a topo map. The damn thing IS the top of the hill, and there are winding steps and cobbled ramps and climbing colonnades the whole way up.
I don't know what this lil guy at the Parc Güell entrance is supposed to be, but I dug him.
The crowds were just as throng-y at the park, but at least it was free to fight them there (the Sagrada was something like 12€ -- which I am willing to pay for paella, but not to shuffle through a building with a mob.
The most famous dragon in all of Barcelona. I wanted a pic of my hand in his mouth so bad, but he was swarmed with a large Japanese tour group.
(Yes, all of the photos in today's post are goofy self portraits. I took other pics, but decided to go with a theme for this one.)
From the top of the Parc. It was a long steep climb, but the view was amazing.
At the very top of the park, at trés cruces, one gets nearly a completely unobstructed 360º view. Here's looking out toward the coastline.
After sangria and paella, I wandered down to the shore and stuck my toes in. It was cold as hell, and while I was too polite to take her picture, there was a woman completely buck ass naked laying in the sand.
And at the end of my day, I soaked my aching feet in the cold, stinging, beautiful sea. Tomorrow, I meet with a botanist and (hopefully) can track down an ornithologist. If not, there's always Parc de Joan Miró.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Day 5: Madrid to Barcelona

This morning, I got up crazy early and took a taxi to the Atoche train station to take the AVE train to Barcelona.

The AVE train is the high speed train--and for much of the journey we were nearing or at 299km/hr (that's just under 186 mph for those of you about to google that). It was surprisingly smooth and unsurprisingly high tech. The chairs were very ergonomic and they played an Audrey Tautou romantic comedy--which awesomely didn't require headphones to follow. We made one stop, in Zaragoza (Saragossa), and the whole trip, nearly 400 miles, took less than 3 hours station to station.

Then I wandered around the amazing, beautiful, surreal streets of Ciutat Vella, the Old City. Everything was closed (including the Museu de Geologia and the Museu de Picasso). I saw the most remarkable balconies on narrow winding streets and mosaics and stained glass and old butted up deliciously to new--THIS city knows how to do that with some goddamn panache.

The new building on the left has painted trompe l'oeil friezes and the one of the right has a tree carved into its brick face... It is next door to...
...this building, the Palau de la Música, home of the Orfeo Català. I couldn't get a good pic, but GOOGLE IT to be amazed.
MAN I LOVE BARCELONA. Also, the proprietor of an Alahambran import store might have proposed to me after I accidentally used the informal form. Lesson learned: usted usted usted!

Tomorrow I hope to see Parc Guell y Familia Sagrada, La Perada, y Casa Batlló. With Tuesday being spent at the Botanical Garden, and Wednesday (hopefully) at the Ornithological Institute, this means I will likely miss Parc de Miró, and the Picasso museum. Luckily the Dali museum is outside of Barcelona, so I can only mourn missing it theoretically. I will definitely becoming back here.

And here's one more of a very serious "cucurucho con dos" by the waterfront. One scoop was tirimísu, and the other "torró." Second lesson learned: torró no es muy bueno. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 4: Madrid zoo / Noche Buena

I had a tough time waking up today. Yesterday, exhaustion or jet lag or whatever overtook me and completely jacked with my sleep cycle. I think part of my hesitation this morning was because I knew I had to pick between the Prado and the zoo--and that was a hard call to make. I should have been able to see both in my time here, but last night I was just too tired. Today, because of the holiday, hours at both attractions were limited. And I knew each one would take the whole day.

Ultimately, I picked the zoo, because this is a research trip. But my heart broke a little to miss the Prado. Just means I have to come back, right?

By the time I took the subway all the way out to Casa de Campos, it was already 11:30. The Madrid zoo is remarkable for the number of endangered (and in at least one case that I saw, extinct in the wild) animals it contains. I saw black rhinos, a very rare European mink, red pandas, giant pandas, a lion that no longer exists outside of zoos (the Barbary lion), a Griffon vulture, and a crazy little South American bear. One animal I did not see is the Iberian lynx, which was a drag--they are supposed to have an exhibit, but I couldn't find it. I also got to hang out in the lemur enclosure and listen to a completely incomprehensible talk about the conservation efforts and unique characteristics of the three species that they have at the zoo. I did catch something about their thumbs being adroit and that they have only male ring-tailed lemurs at the zoo.
After the zoo, I wandered around a less-awesome part of town, lost, for a bit and then finally made it back to the commercial district where everything except ice cream shops was closed for Christmas Eve. I ended up having to eat fast food for dinner--lesson learned, by the way? Ice cream would make a better meal than Euro-knock offs of junk food.

I ended the day frustrated that I am leaving Madrid in the morning. There are a million other things I want to see and eat, but Barcelona (and Gaudi! and paella!) awaits.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 3: Madrid via turísta

Notes from today.

During the day I walked with an ex-pat and visited some lovely tourist attractions. She also helped me navigate the largest department store, Cortes Ingles, where I upgraded my shoulder bag for a small backpack. My shoulders were beginning to suffer. After we parted ways, I wandered through the Plaza Major, which was resplendent with strange Christmas decorations: wolf hats, psychedelic children's wigs, and caganers (“poopers”--little squatting figurines that are an essential component of any Catalan nativity scene). I got one for my mother's own bizarro Christmas village in Phoenix. By the time I get to Barcelona, the giant caganer in one of the malls will probably be gone. 'Tis a pity. It is said that a small child could climb his coiled refuse like a stack of tires. Or if it isn't, it should be.

Madrid downtown at night. The Christmas lights, like the strange wigs, were bright and ubiquitous. I will confess upfront that I was too chicken to go into any of the bars alone. Always a group of young men could be found huddled around their cigarettes and each other just outside the tavern doors, and I could not muster the presence to part them. But it is sometimes good to follow the crowd—in this case they led me down a side street off the Puerta del Sol to the Chocolateria San Gines. But not before I got to watch a trio of buskers perform a rendition of the theme song to “Friends” with the whole crowd singing along to the chorus. 

Based on the line to get in, it is to Madrid's chocolate and churros what Cafe du Monde is to New Orleans' coffee and beignets. The crowd was formidable and the chocolate thick. I suddenly understood why the waitress at a cafe the day before had dissuaded me from the Ibarra hot chocolate, because she said in her almost accomplished English, “It is just liquid.” Spanish chocolate is not just liquid—it misses qualifying as a sauce by a very small margin. 

At San Gines, for less than four euros you get a teacup's worth of chocolate and 6 greasy though not-too-sweet churros. It is a place for groups, and I felt conspicuous and inconsiderate for sitting at a table alone amid such a throng. There was only one chair, but couples and other solo desserters had perched their cups on the counters and even the wide molding around the room to be able to dunk and chatter. I made motions to move for two older couples, “se tranquilo” one of the men said, Relax. I guess anyone that would stress out over dessert has bigger problems to worry about.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 2: Madrid (botanical garden)

Notes from today (I almost fell asleep on a park bench while typing the below, so please forgive blurriness).
It's just me and the little old ladies in here.

Botanical gardens are a place to hide out. No one expects you to talk much in a botanical garden, and few other people are even around. Here in Jardin Real, the birds are frustratingly familiar. There seem to be Spanish magpies and chickadees and some sort of orange-beaked blackbird that waddles with a busybody air about it—if it had hands, they'd be on its hips. Pigeons look the same the world over.

I expected it to be disappointing, the garden in winter. It's true, the rows of empty rose and rhododendron stems were a bit disheartening, but suddenly the trees with their strange branch shapes and leaves, standing out in relief, are so much more interesting. It's true, I am crashing. After I meet with Dr. Vargas, I am going to go back to the tiniest hotel room ever and sleep the night away.

Occasionally a young couple will walk by, on date 5 or 6 (by date 4 they've done something too casual, like watch 30Rock reruns all day in their matching footie pajamas, and need to add some culture back into their budding relationship). They sit on the benches draped in each other's arms, like Cupid and Psyche. The old ladies look on disapprovingly, but I try to give a look that says “BE IN LOVE.”

There's a cat in here, black and white like a sulky Holstein. It's the first cat I've seen in Madrid. I don't think I've ever seen a cat in New York. I'm that kind of tired where you have to keep rubbing your eyes. Where the yawns split your whole head open to suck in the air. Like I could fall asleep for a moment even just walking.

The staff in Spain is wonderful, the pedestrians? Not so much. Everyone I ask for help is patient and good humored. And most people speak some English. This is good and bad, because I don't get to practice too much. As soon as I make a mistake, they want to be more efficient and speak English. But pedestrians shove past with haughty airs. 

I had a great meandering conversation with the botanist today. He understood what I was looking for, and gave me a lot of stories, about frogs, bustards, olive and dragon trees. Not too many on the Canary Islands, instead Mallorca, Balearic, and Iberia. I had aged salmon on black bread for dinner. Now to sleep til real morning.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 1: Laramie to Denver to Philly to Madrid

No good piece of travel writing begins in the airport. That's a rule. It's a bit of a relief, really. Now I can relax and not worry about trying to be any good.

It's pretty early in the morning, but it has already been a long day. I swore to myself that I wasn't going to  buy any over-priced airport food, but as soon as I walked into terminal B, I sat right down at "Pour La France Cafe & Bistro" and ordered their version of an "omelette parmientier" [sic]. I just looked it up online, and what I had bears little resemblance--there were artichoke hearts and mushrooms on mine.

I was up at 3:05 this morning. It turned out to be not quite enough time to eat breakfast. The shuttle was waiting for me when I went downstairs, though he said he'd just gotten there. Here are my notes from the shuttle:
There are three women (myself included) in this cargo van hurtling away from Laramie toward Ft. Collins. One of us keeps coughing and sniffling in this wet, ominous way that makes me want to hold my breath. One of us also talks to a family member on the phone, assuring him or her, in Farsi or Hindi. Her voice sounds like zen bells, the vowels rounded and melodic. That's a terrible mixing of cultures, but it's all I've got at 4 am.
Then we got to Ft. Collins and our little van emptied into the slightly larger bus headed to Denver airport.  I said I wasn't going to sleep--I need to wait until the flight out of Philly to do that--but it was hard not to in the back row. The bus was dark, I could only see the heads of all the women in front of me. (Out of nearly 20 of us, only two were men--Do men think they need to drive themselves to the airport?) The air smelled like skin still-warm from sleep, some mix of popcorn, dryer sheets and deodorants. Every now and then, a woman in the front would shift, and her violet lotion would drift through the still air. No one made a sound, some of us dozed--but you couldn't say sleep because there was no sound of deep breathing, even.

There was a woman asleep on the shoulder of another woman. The silhouette against the window of the first's crutches leaning against the giant teddy bear of the second, made it look as though the bear had a ladder and was trying to climb out the window. The driver had the heat on, and I hadn't been so warm in over a week. I'll admit that I kept dozing off.  

My rugged, over-stuffed backpack draws looks. It looks like what it is: people smile gently at me like they think I'll be backpacking through Germany or Banff later today.  Close, I want to say

España. I'm worried about making the most of my trip. I don't know how I'll judge my productivity. Once I meet the rest of the group in Madrid Aeropuerto, it will be easy--but that's a full week away. Much of this last semester, I have worried that I was squandering my time, not making the most of my "time to write."

But now, I am excited to see the Sagrada Familia and walk through the Madrid Zoo. I know a lot of folks hate zoos, and I understand why, but I love them--and I can't wait to see one in another country. I will be meeting with a botanist in Madrid tomorrow afternoon, and one in Barcelona on the 27th. Still trying to track down an ornithologist, can I say I haven't heard a peep? I'm about to send one more hopeful email to the Institut Català d'Ornitologia. Fingers crossed.

This time tomorrow, though it won't really be 24 hours from now, I'll be landing in Madrid. How amazing is that?