Saturday, January 12, 2008

New Years in Spain was not at all how I had expected it to be. It was disappointing in all the ways I expected it to be pleasant, and pleasant in many ways I had not imagined. The disappointments were partly my own fault. I went there with expectations of romance, which was ridiculous. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything so hair-brained. But I guess it’s good to do something irrational every once in a while, and now I’ve filled my quota for this decade. But with a little perseverance and spontaneity, it was a great holiday.

I arrived in Amsterdam on Friday morning after an all-night flight from San Francisco to find that my luggage was still in SF. The airline promised to forward it to Madrid the next day. It arrived 3 days later, and I was so relieved to stop wearing the same clothes! My flight left for Madrid early Saturday morning. My watch broke and fell off in the hotel van, so I called the hotel from the airport terminal and asked them to check for it. I must have set my wallet down because when I arrived at Madrid it was gone. Without my watch or wallet I felt like I was loosing my mind and everything else important to surviving abroad. I was so grateful that my friend John met me at the airport. Had I been by myself, I would have been really stuck.
Unlike Amsterdam, very few people in Spain are willing to speak English, even if they know how, and since I took French in High School instead, my Spanish is almost non-existent. I became very good at saying, “Lo siento, no habla espanol!” and then either continuing to stumble along in Spanish if the other person did not understand English or in a little English if they were capable.
Madrid is a very beautiful city. The architecture is gorgeous and there are frequent Plazas and fountains. It’s almost always sunny (yet cold) during the day, and the streets were lit up at night for Christmas. Downtown, almost every street had lights strewn across it, and after dark they were just breathtaking. The first day we went downtown and walked round and round. Everyone was wearing crazy wigs for New Years. In Spain, the festive season is not just 2 holidays: Christmas & New Year. Instead it’s a 2 week long party celebrating any and all the events surrounding Christmas. The first day, John came with me downtown. He speaks English well since is father’s family is English and he has lived in the US and England. I was looking forward to meeting his (Basque) family very much, but unfortunately, they were not interested in meeting me. For people who pride themselves in their acceptance of diversity and claim to be very open minded, the Spanish are not very religiously tolerant. John’s family decided that it was not worth their while to meet me because I am Mormon (although I’d classify myself as pretty liberal and open-minded in my beliefs). I was ok with that, it’s their choice, but it means I spent a lot of time alone while John was with his family. John (who is a convert to the church) deals with this negativity all the time, so I count myself lucky to have tolerant friends.

I stayed with a sweet Bolivian family, the Churatas. They spoke no English and I speak no Spanish. We communicated with gestures and made bad translations of phrases using a Spanish/English dictionary. If it was really urgent, we could call John or the missionaries and they helped translate. The kids (teenagers and early 20’s) were really fantastic. I managed to build a good relationship with them despite the language barrier. Their mom was hung-up about the language issues (I don’t think she’s ever had to do this before) and that made her stress out. I felt bad and began to feel like a nuisance.

I wandered around town by myself as much as possible but it was cold and I mostly felt like sleeping. On New Years John said that his family was throwing a huge party that I was not invited to, and he would be busy with them all evening. I was kind of relieved not to spend New Years with him because we just weren’t on the same wavelength and making conversation was stressful. I considered going downtown alone, but there were explosions everywhere and the metro stopped at 9pm that night, so I decided against it. I slept for about 12 hours that night. Happy New Year!

The next day John and I went to Toledo, a beautiful city southwest of Madrid that has Muslim, Christian, and Jewish influence and is still well integrated and harmonious. It’s a walled-city with lots of history and beautiful architecture of diverse types. We walked and walked and walked and walked up and down hills. It was nice, but cold, so after 4 hours of walking and a nice paella lunch, we got back in the car and drove home.
Since I didn’t have my wallet and wasn’t having the time of my life in Madrid, I suggested that perhaps I could try to catch an earlier flight home. The following day was John’s birthday and his mother had big plans for him (which did not include me) so it seemed that it would work out well to make an early exit. John seemed happy with the idea. I used the Spanish dictionary to explain what was happening to the Churatas.

The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn with my bags on the first subway of the morning from Vinateros street to Barajas airport. Upon arrival, I was told that European airlines don’t let passengers fly standby. It would cost over $1000 to change my ticket. I sat down with my luggage and looked outside at overcast Madrid. I had no desire to stay in that city for 2 more days. While it’s a beautiful place, I’m not the type the loves the big city 24/7. So I started trekking across the airport in search of other options (all I had was an American Express card and 50 Euros). I couldn’t rent a car because my license was gone with my wallet, I considered flights to other countries, but they're hard to find on the day-of. The train looked appealing. I love trains, and it would be nice to give another part of Spain a try to see if it could redeem my vacation. I asked Renfe (Spanish Rail Network) if they took American Express. “yes!” The next train leaving that afternoon was to Valencia. I found a good hostel online and booked the ticket. I knew nothing about Valencia except for that it was on the Mediterranean, 3 hours from Madrid, and hopefully warmer!

As soon as I arrived at the train station, my vacation took at 180 degree turnaround. The metro ride from Aeropuerto to Puerto de Atocha (train station) took nearly an hour on 3 subway lines (they are not close), but as soon as I arrived, the hall opened up into the beautiful indoor rainforest. It was so calming and I set down all my belongings and relaxed for a couple of hours. The ironic thing about Puerto de Atocha (PDA) train station was the excessive amount of “PDA” that couples in lines all around me were showing each other. They were aggressively making out all over the place. In the Marshall Islands, public affection is SO taboo that you might be arrested for doing what they were doing in public. But cultures are different and that’s what’s great about the world.

Only first class tickets were available to Valencia, which is really not my style, but I enjoyed being taken care of after a rough morning of dragging my belongings all over the city of Madrid and Barajas Airport. On the train, there were handsome waiters with white linen wrapped around their waists bringing multiple-course meals, lovely relaxing music (instrumental movie soundtracks) in my headphones, and beautiful pastoral scenery flying by outside the window. There were Olive vineyards, rich red soil, farm houses, windmills, and best of all, the sun on my face! As we approached Valencia the Olive vines were replaced by bright green Valencia orange trees contrasted by bright juicy oranges. It was just magnificent!

The hostel that I stayed at was fantastic! “The Purple Nest” sounded a bit psychedelic, but it got good reviews from past guests. It was a short walk from the Colon (Christopher Columbus) metro stop, right next to Plaza Tetuan, where the last of the executions of the Spanish inquisition took place. The hostel is in a 5 story victorian building and my room had a cast-iron balcony on the third floor (see the picture above) overlooking Plaza Tetuan and Convent de Santo Domingo, where King Felipe III and Queen Margarethe were married. I got a great night’s rest and woke up early again to see all I could see before heading back to Madrid on the last train that evening. I went walking just before sunrise and watched the light dawn on Porto Real (the Royal Bridge….built for Phillip and Marguerite).

Valencia has so many trees, which makes it lovely, and along with the trees, many birds. In fact, it seems that the Madrid birds winter in Valencia because there were hundreds of them in the trees singing their hearts out in the plazas at dawn. I went to a corner café and ordered a pastry and hot chocolate all by myself in Spanish (what an accomplishment, right?). True to Spanish style, the hot chocolate was more like hot chocolate pudding. I realized the spoon next to my cup after trying unsuccessfully to pour it in my mouth.

I peered into the open door of the convent across the street from the hostel and felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. It startled me, and I turned to find a kind old gentleman, who explained to me in Spanish all about the convent. Of course, I only understood every 10th word he said, but he beckoned me inside the chapel where there were 2 sarcophagi. After a lot of explanation which I was dying to understand but could not, he asked where I was from, and upon hearing the response, he said in English, “Oh, I like Americans!” Aahhh! I should have asked him to speak English from the beginning! Later I learned that the convent was originally built in the 14th century by Dominicans. In 1812 it was used by the French to house their troops, and as I mentioned before, it was the site of wedding of Felipe III and Margarethe in 1599. It is now used at least in part by the Valencian military. A religious service was beginning, so I made myself scarce.
I got a self-paced audio walking tour (with 74 points of interest in Valencia) and set out. It rained, so I put on my wool coat, pulled up the hood, and pressed play. It highlighted fascinating things about the city. When I got to the Admiral’s Baths, the door swung open and handsome Spaniard with dark curly hair invited me in for the free tour they were starting. I learned all kinds of interesting things about the history of bathing and how people did it before houses had plumbing. Both the architectural and engineering design of this particular bathhouse were brilliant. By the time the bath-house tour finished, the rain had stopped and I walked for 3 more hours and saw Palaces, Courts, Cathedrals, the Serranos Gate (the old entrance to the city when the Kingdom of Valencia was under the Crown of Aragon), neighborhoods built during the Belle Epoche, Markets, Sanctuaries built by the Knights Templar, and many other fascinating parts of the city. The amazing thing is that there is such a wealth of architecture from ancient to modern standing right next to each other. All you have to do is turn 360 degrees around to see 4 or 5 different architectural styles and natural beauty all existing side-by-side. It’s really quite spectacular. They have also planned so much green space into the city (including the entire path of the old riverbed) that it makes Valencia feel so much less chaotic than Madrid. There’s so much that I didn’t have time to see that I’ll have to go back.

I was running out of time before my 8:20pm train and I hadn’t seen the ocean yet, so I got on a bus at the civic center as the light began to fade in the sky. It was rush hour, and took a long time to get to the sea, but it was worth the trip. Because it was so cold, the beach was empty and peaceful and the promenade was all lit up. I took some pictures, collected a few shells, strolled up the beach, and found a beautiful fountain in the shape of a boat. An older gentleman walking his dog came by and exchanged a few words with me (wish I understood more!). I was taking photos of the fountain when a young man rode up on a bike and spoke to me in Spanish. I gave him the same “Lo siento, no habla espanol” line that I gave everyone and he switched to English with a New Zealand accent. I took a picture for him and visa versa and we started talking. He had just finished a motorcycle trip from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro, now lives on a houseboat and works in London and was visiting a friend in Spain for New Years. Within 10 minutes we were telling stories like we had been friends for years. We went for coffee/chocolate at a swanky beachfront cafe that we were both underdressed for, but there was hardly anyone inside to notice. He was adorable and animated telling stories and I didn’t want to leave, but I had only 35 minutes to get back across town to pick up my bags from the hostel and catch my train.

There was tons of traffic and my nice taxi driver kept trying to give me Spanish lessons, but I was biting my nails because of how late I was, and I just wanted him to drive fast. I grabbed my bags from the hostel and jumped in another taxi 7 minutes before my train was to leave. Traffic was bad again, and I communicated to the driver what a bad situation I was in. He dropped me off across from the station with 2 minutes before departure time because there was no way he could cross over to the station, and then I had to dodge 6 lanes of cars on Xativa Street. I nearly got hit several times, but was so focused on the platform that it didn’t phase me. I tore through the terminal, threw my bags up on the metal detector, grabbed them again and lunged for the train. Literally 20 seconds after I boarded it pulled out of the station. I found my car and collapsed into the seat and slept all the way to Madrid. What relief!!
I went to the Madrid airport and caught the first flight of the morning (5:50am to Amsterdam). I stood in line behind a sweet Nicaraguan man who immigrated to LA 16 years ago. He was returning from a visit to his girlfriend in Spain. We discussed the problems with immigration in the US. If politicians would just create foreign policy that would strengthen the economies and democracies of our neighbors in Central America, the US wouldn’t have need for taller borders. The European Union hasn’t done everything perfectly, but they have a great idea in cooperating for the good of all the countries involved. Spain’s transformation since Franco’s death in 1970’s is a perfect example of the possibilities.
In Amsterdam I jumped on the train during my layover and went downtown. I rented a bike and pedaled up and down canals for a couple hours. It was great, and Amsterdam is very beautiful, too, even in the middle of winter. There are more bikes than cars and at first it’s a little intimidating because you have to pay attention for all kinds of vehicles and pedestrians (and I was still figuring out my bike). Eventually I got the hang of it. I’d love to return there in the summer, too. I returned the bike, hopped the train, and jumped on another flight to Minnesota. I sat next to a college student from Bulgaria attending school in Illinois. What a fascinating conversation!

From there I flew to California, where I got really sick and was so thankful to be near my mom! Two days later I flew to Hawaii and then Majuro yesterday. This holiday I had a total of 10 flights on 5 different airlines. I’m so happy to stay put in my own house for a little while now! I am feeling really refreshed for a new semester, and I can’t wait to see my students. I am SO grateful to have had a second chance to discover Spain! I’ll definitely be back again, perhaps next summer after a few intensive Spanish lessons. What a beautiful country with kind and handsome people. It reaffirms my belief that the world is full of good people and places. When things are not going your way it’s hard to recognize that, but I believe that it’s true. It’s good to be alive!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I’ve been living with a crab. No, I didn’t get a roommate. I actually have a tenacious little crab that keeps moving in. He’s not particularly cute and cuddly, but he’s not terribly intrusive either. I live on the third floor, so it’s evident that he went through a lot just to make it up to my front door, and he wasn’t likely to move out easily. Every time I found him, I would try to sweep him out, but he would run under the refrigerator. Finally one night I found him on my bed, and I decided that was enough. I chased him off, but then he ran under all my flattened cardboard boxes. After pulling out about 25 boxes, I finally found him, captured him with my popcorn bowl and threw him to the beach below. Here’s hoping that he gives up and stays down there!

From final exam week I thought I’d bring you a couple of funny test answers. There were not as many answers that made me laugh out loud as usual this semester, which was disappointing, but grading exams went quickly, so I’m in no position to complain. I needed to write a probability question, but it’s hard to do without involving something boring like dice or cards. In an attempt to make probability relevant to my student’s lives, here’s the question I wrote: “There are 10 rats living in the seawall. 7 of them are carrying diseases. If you catch three of them, what is the probability that all three will be carrying a disease? Interpret the probability: is it very likely to get three diseased rats? Why?” I though it was a good question…there are a lot of rats in seawalls here, and it is a public health issue. Here are some of my favorite responses: “Not likely, very disgusting!” “Why would you want to get anywhere near those rats?” and here’s my favorite: “If 7 rats have babies with the other 3 rats, then you’ll get 21 diseased rats, and then add 10 more and you’ll have 31 diseased rats. Yeah, it’s pretty likely!” Looking on the bright side, I’m glad that they used critical thinking and common sense, even if they missed the calculations.

In preparing to leave the island for Christmas, Susan and I decided that we had to go out Muumuu shopping for our friends and family. There was a special Christmas muumuu with poinsettias on it that Susan had her eye on (see the photo). I also got some (although slightly less tacky) for my family, which they loved (although this is not exactly the time of year for muumuus because they are nice and silky and light…better for summer). I took a break from muumuu shopping to get a haircut at DAR. The nice Filipina lady there has done nice things with my hair in the past, but I think that we had a slight language barrier problem this time because she gave me a cut that looked like a mullet (I was hoping for some subtle layers). I went to Susan’s house immediately because I couldn’t handle it, and our friend Eric told me that the back of my head looked like a duck’s butt. Sadly, it was true. Susan worked on my hair in her kitchen and did a great job of evening it out and making it presentable, but she had to cut off alot. So unfortunately, no more ponytails for me since its now way too short. (I’ll actually have to style my hair and not be so lazy now). I dont' think that you can see the bag that I tied around my neck at Susan's for the haircut, but appropriately, it said, "Thankyou! Thankyou! Thankyou!"

As usual, the semester wrapped up in a whirlwind. My friend Mary’s family has had overwhelming challenges this year, and the month of December was no exception. In October, Mary lost her mom, who she cared for in her home for many years. Then in December, Mary’s younger brother Swain (only in his 40s), who had some health problems, took a turn for the worse and was hospitalized. They tried to airlift him out to Manila for cancer treatment, but it was too late and he passed away in December. Swain worked with us at CMI and always had a smile on his face and something witty to say. He was always strong and healthy and a good provider for his family and many others. Hallmarks of his generosity included the electricity lines leaving his house and arriving at neighbors’ houses. He was the one who paid the electric bill for his whole neighborhood. His loss will be felt profoundly in our small island community.

The day that I left (Sat Dec 15th) was supposed to be the Christmas parade. It is THE annual event that all the children look forward to with great anticipation. There is not much gift-giving surrounding Marshallese Christmas, but Santa rides in this parade (sponsored by the chamber of commerce) and throws oodles of candy to children below. Children bring plastic shopping bags and chase after Santa picking up candy all the way from Rita to Delap (about 3 miles). Well, this parade got rained on, so it was delayed quite a bit, and meanwhile all the children patiently waited by the side of the road with plastic bags in hand. It really hits you like a ton of bricks when you see all the children outside at the same time. There were kids EVERYWHERE! The reality actually doesn’t even set in how many children there are in the Marshall Islands until I go home to the states or Europe and hardly see any kids around. The islands are just wonderful and different! It’s an entirely different life!

I was at the bottom of my stairs with my luggage waiting for a taxi amongst all the candy-waiting kids, when Garry and Hermine and Kenen (3 friends from church) drove past, turned around, and offered me a ride. They explained that they were going all the way out to the Bank of Marshall branch at the airport since the one in town was closed for the parade. It was so sweet and generous of them, but what happened next melted my heart. Kenen helped me unload my suitcases and start checking in. Then I went to find Hermine to wish her Merry Christmas and she pulled out a beautiful oyster-shell necklace and put it around my neck. She must have gone to the bank and then quickly located this beautiful gift to give. I was so overwhelmed by her sweetness. Their family had already done me a big favor by delivering me to the airport, and then she gave even more. What a wonderful example to me of generosity and kindness. It made me smile all the way home, and I didn’t stop wearing the necklace for 5 days afterward. I also found a special little treat for her here at home that I hope she’ll like.

My first stop was Las Vegas to see my sister Honor and her family. It was absolutely FREEZING when I arrived. I don’t own any warm clothes in Majuro. Luckily Honor and Jeremy live just a hop-skip-jump from several second-hand stores, which made my day. It was fantastic to see those guys. Their little guy, Grant is a real handful, but he’s also extraordinarily cute! He’s about 16 months old now, and he’s running around terrorizing the place. Since Honor and I look a little similar, he was content to play with me a little while she and Jeremy packed their house to move to Utah. Grant is absolutely fascinated by anything mechanical or electronic (I predict that he’ll be an electrical engineer). What to do if he cries? No problem! Just hand him a calculator, remote control, computer keyboard, telephone, etc…and he’s a happy camper for hours! I even put him up on the counter so that I could have two free hands to clean the refrigerator, and he scooted himself over to the sink so he could play with their fancy faucet head. It kept him busy for hours!

Then I flew home to San Francisco & my mom and dad picked me up. The fun with babies wasn’t over yet, because my brother Clay and sister-in-law Cullen have a new little guy named Cash, who is absolutely adorable. He’s only about 3 months old, and is so sweet. It was so fun to meet him and play with him. Ordinarily I get left out of these things because I live so far away. My mom and dad were moving into their new house and racing to get their belongings out of 3 storage units into the new place. It is still a work in progress, but it’s coming along very well, and we were able to have Christmas dinner together in our own house for the first time in 5 years. Mom is in heaven!

After Christmas I went to Spain for a week, but it will take a while to type that part. There are a million pictures to attach and it’s pretty slow going, so please be patient with me. I have a 5 hour flight to Hawaii and then another 5 hour flight to Majuro, so I’m hoping to work on it then. Happy New Year everyone!