Thursday, July 26, 2012

What's in a name?

In addition to the requisite broadening of horizons, Robert and I wanted to get some insight on where our forebears came from. A couple of our destinations were to cater to this sidequest (much like collecting all the gold Skulltulas or gathering all the necessary items to ensure you were picked as Don Corneo's lucky lady for the night), and during our pre-trip research, it was discovered that the name Sarmiento, while abundant in the Philippines, but less so in the United States or Mexico, has its roots in Spain as the family name of some of the Conversos, or Jews that decided it was in their best interests to convert to Catholicism in order to stay alive. (As it happened, the team swap was regarded with suspicion by Catholics under the reign of the aforementioned Ferdinand and Isabella, convinced it was merely to gain access to the blood of Christian babies for conducting their secret Jewish Passover rituals and other such bullshit paranoid delusions and it was those suspected of being secret Jews who were a primary target of the Inquistion, no matter if the last three generations of your now Catholic family had been baptized, confirmed and members of the church choir. Are we having fun yet?)
In Granada, a phone book was briefly flipped to reveal the presence of about six Sarmientos left in the city, and we resolved that perhaps we just were't going to get a definitive answer on the history of the Sarmientos in Spain this time around.
Flash forward to our cab ride to the Barcelona airport two days later, Robert is chatting up a storm with our driver and mentions our sidequest in Granada, and whether or not he knew any Sarmientos and if, by chance, he knew of an kosher roots. He did not, in fact, know any Sarmientos but was surprised that we didn't know what a sarmiento was! Oh, there is a thing called a sarmiento? Good sir, please do elaborate! He cheerfully informed us that sarmientos were the hard, dried wood of a grape vine, assuring us that they made excellent firewood, best used in the slow cooking of barbacoa. "Sarmientos burn for a long time!" He exclaimed, "Muy bien!" We sat in silence in the backseat, contemplating this odd bit of trivia as we drove further away from the center of the city. As we passed a low hill on the right, our cab driver (who had been enthusiastically tossing out historical factoids with every block) waved his hand towards it and expelled another casual statement, one I did not catch, but that made Robert's eyebrows raise in what I took to be surprise. I was partly right. He turned towards me, expression undecipherable, and whispered, "He said that's where Barcelona buried alive the Jews at some point, when they wanted them out of the city." We stared at each other for a few seconds, quietly pondering this, and previous statements, before the awful moment of realization of where exactly that name for the excellently burning firewood came from sank in. The wine we had been consuming sat hard and sour in our stomachs as we both tried not to spell out the inevitable conclusion, instead dissolving into what were at first uncomfortable chuckles, and later the delirious laughter of the shocked and tipsy. We later agreed that though we wanted the historical facts, perhaps we were not prepared for the actual truth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Exit Musings on Granada

We embarked on an ambitious, if somewhat under calculated, excursion to Granada, spending a total of two days and one night in what was once a stronghold of Muslim Spain, the last area to be conquered in the name of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella (you may recall these names in relation to Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition, busy rulers) after 700 years of a Muslim Iberian Peninsula.

Though it has been over 500 years since the fall of Granada to the Catholics, the Islamic influence is very noticeable when wandering down the twisting alleys and streets, intricately patterned tiles still border rounded doorways, and every third wrong turn leads you to yet another charming courtyard, complete with fountains and tiled pomegranates. I don't think we ever ran across the same courtyard twice.

I know I said Barcelona was old, and it is, but Granada is positively ancient. the city has been around since the mid-11th century, and we stayed in the oldest and most difficult to find section of the city. Our cab driver coul.sdn't locate the street our hostel was on, ans we were later informed that, due to the narrow streets with extremely tight turns and steep inclines, cars can't enter such a labyrinth, lest they become wedged between the white-walled buildings.The romantic in me swooned, the sweating, aching traveller with 30 lbs on her back was decidedly less enthralled.

Our hostel was really a converted home, with a spiral staircase leading us from the main porch to the guest balcony and the jaw-dropping view of Granada and Alhambra across the way. Our hostel was shared by an assortment of sweaty, rumpled students from Australia, Sweden and the U.K. who would park themselves directly in the sun during the hottest part of the day, smoking spliffs to the nub, before deciding it was time to go out and drink until dawn.

Granada is almost completely deserted during the day, and the surprised look on the bartender at El Pozo's face when we fell through his door around 2pm told us that we were his first and probably only customers for the day. He poured us icy beers and set out mini pork filets on crusty toast for us to munch on while Robert asked if he had ever heard of anyone by the name of Sarmiento in Granada. He hadn't, but produced a phone book from under the bar so we could take a look. A note about El Pozo: we all love to talk about the various dive bars we may frequent, proud of their impossible locations, and labeling them holes in the wall with a certain relish, but El Pozo is an actual cave, quite literally a hole in the wall.

We befriended a girl from Portland, by way of Iowa, named Brittany and with her, we set off into the night, the promise of mojitos and tapas hanging over our heads like cartoon thought bubbles. And mojitos and tapas we did consume, until we decided that the best way to get lost in Granada or potentially snap an ankle on those treacherous streets was to over imbibe and look for a shortcut at 4am. The next day, Robert and I vowed not to be caught in the midday heat and set off for a stream running along the base of Alhambra, and spent the afternoon reading and napping beneath the fortress and the trees. We had picked up some spiffy harem pants the day before and agreed the healthy breeze around one's crotch was key to surviving the heat, and hope to continue strutting around in enough fabric to make a sail upon our return.

As in Barcelona, the people we have met have all been fantastically friendly, which is hard to get used to at first, at least for this American, but Robert has taken to the culture like a duck to water.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Spanish bathrooms, son, I am disappoint

Seriously, the women's bathrooms around here are possibly the most disgusting, dank, foul pits I have encountered. Each time I have to pee, I am now seized with fear. Not like irrational Toilet Snake Fear that crops up out if the blue, but real, gut-clenching "Why are there puddles of piss alongside the seat and no toilet paper ever?!" Robert tells me that the men's restrooms are sparkling clean, each time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Very Short Introduction to Barcelona

I See Attractive, Stylish Individuals: A Story of Spain

But first, a shout out to Iberia Airlines; although I am the sound opinion that absolutely nothing exists to make a 14 hour flight truly bearable, Iberia did their best. Friendly flight attendents, pleasant in-flight tunes (but more on that later), and quite possibly the best-tasting airline food I have ever experienced. Airline food that happened to be adorably packed alternatively in red faux-ceramic plastic containers and cleverly folded cardboard boxes. (Pictures forth-coming as I know you are breathlessly waiting for the presentation of airline food.)

We landed at Madrid Barajas, an airline that sometimes doubles as a truly ambitious setting for a stage play. I can see this ceiling overlooking a more avant-garde interpretation of A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Maybe Metamorphosis. Clearly something within the sexy mythological subgenre.

The flight to Barcelona was unremarkable except for the strange choices in takeoff and touchdown music. When we took off, I could swear we were being invited to look, if we dare, beyond the inner recesses of the human soul into The Twilight Zone. I would not have been surprised if Rod Sterling himself came on over the P.A. system to introduce himself as our pilot. When we landed, however, the trilling flutes, crashing cymbals and blaring horns section was not much comfort either, perhaps something a little less..sudden would work better. Otherwise, altogether decent.

Barcelona defies a simple explanation. It is as though the call was sent up, for the attractive youth of every nation to descend upon La Rambla and drink their nights away in a tangle of tanned skin through the haze of cigarette smoke. During one of our rambles through the winding streets, Robert and I happened upon a plaza, populated by the aforementioned young and gorgeous in their everyday Vogue best, and remarked that this is where the cool kids must hang out. I do not think there are any other kind of kid here.

Obviously, everything is rather old. We throw ourselves a freaking parade everytime a building hits fifty over in the States, but here, it feels as though every building has lived through, or watched over, several lifetimes and then some. Prime example is, of course, La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral that truly strikes the proud and humble alike with the glory of God, as cathedrals are meant to do. I could sit on the floor and stare up at the ceiling for forever. And once I was done with the ceiling, I could spend a weekend on the stained glass and even longer on the impossibly intricate facades, with a blend of neo-Gothic and modern styles that I have never seen interwoven quite like this. It was rather hot and humid today, and after walking to La Sagrada Familia from our accomodations, the self-guided audio tour begin to drag towards the end. Any fatigue or leg aches were banished up reaching the great heights of the bell towers, and carefully winding our way down tightly spiraled staircases, not meant for the faint of heart or sufferers of vertigo.

Our hostel is somewhat dorm-like, with a dash of state penitentiary. Filled with travelers of every nation, but few over 25, we have shared a room with three young men from London, one from Quebec, another for parts undetermined, and now two from somewhere Scandanavian. This is only our second night here, but we are checking out tomorrow in order to hit the beach before taking the overnight train* to Granada. Major design flaw of our room is the fact that our pull-down bunkbeds partially block access to four out of the six lockers available to the occupants of the room. Good news is, we are two of those four. Bad news, that is two people who have to hop over us whenever they want to brush their teeth. The shower floods the bathroom something fierce too.

It is late, and I am done battling this keyboard, so I retire for the night in the anticipation of adding some pictures to this post tomorrow.

*I know hearing the words overnight train ignites the desire in some folks to tell all the horrible stories that happened to a friend of a friend on the overnight trains in Europe, but please, we have heard more than enough. We have like eleventy padlocks and Robert just discovered the rape whistle on his backpack, so I feel like we have a handle on this one.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

So Here We Are...

This upcoming Monday Robert and I will be departing from LAX at 6:00pm, bound for Barcelona, in the first leg of a journey that will take us partway around the world, if never dipping below that 30 degree parallel. In order to get some basics out of the way, let's hit up the 5 W's (and one H):

Robert and Traci, lovers and friends, partners in crime, takers of awkward photos. You know us, you love us, and you know what? We love you too.

Embarking on a journey that during the summer of 2012, chasing the meaning of life and cheap accommodations.

July 9th-August 31st 2012

Spain-Switzerland-France-Germany-Nepal-China-Japan, plus three days in Hawai'i at the end to, um, decompress. Yeah, that's it.

On the face, this is a ridiculous question because it seems so obvious. I mean, why not, right? But there are actually many answers to this one: our combined travel experience thus far has been primarily limited to various points around the United States and Mexico, this is the optimal point in both of our lives to take this kind of trip (done with school, no kids, no house, etc.), and, in the first of probably many, many Mark Twain quotes, "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." I have no desire to live the provincial life; this is the only shot we get and it is entirely on our shoulders to make it count for something.

Dude. Dude. has these crazy flight package deals where you can visit multiple destinations for a criminally low sum. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop when selecting my travel itinerary (which, by the by, is the most fun aspirational time-wasting tool out there), but, even with some taxes at the end, each of our tickets (multiple flights and destinations) came out to be less than 4k each. A shout out to Grace Chuang for telling me about this amazing offer during the summer of 2010 while we were sequestered on Catalina Island. The rest was saving all the pennies that could be found.

There it is in a nutshell. What I Am Doing on My Summer Vacation. Stay tuned...