Saturday, December 26, 2009

Quintos - Weighed, Measured and found to be drunk!

Los Quintos of 2010 getting ready for the changeover by painting designated surfaces

Dear citizens of the world,

Although it might not seem like it, we are living in times of relative peace. European nations such as Spain and France gave up manditory military service at the end of the 20th century.

However, traditions in Spain die hard.

Los Quintos are the people who are turning 18 over the coming year. In the past, they would be weighed and measured in the city hall for their military service. Those found to be too short or too fat might be pardoned. In general, most would have to go and the unlucky ones would end up oversees in Western Sahara.

The name Quintos comes from 1/5. Spanish Kings in the 15th century ordered that one-fifth of all men "Contribute Blood" by doing military service. They did not beat around the bush when they gave it that name...

Los Quintos have changed in name and form in modern times. Now it is often written with a K as Kintos (Email and SMS texting's influence on Spanish spelling). There is also the politicaly correct female version with an A = Kintas.

Spain has adopted a volunteer army, much like the United Statesian Army system. But the "comming of age" celebrations continue.

Kintas are the girls from the village who are becoming adults.

Certain walls, and parts of walls, are designated for the Quintos to paint their names. The white background with red letters was for 2009. Next year the background is blue. On the 31st the Quintos will paint their names on the new surface.

The big hand-over ceremony is a bonfire on the New Years Eve where everyone gets drunk. I am 18! Now I can get smashed!

There are many roles the Quintos play throughout the year during the many micro and macro festivals, but one in particular was a bit shocking:

Until only a few years ago, the Quintos played a gruesome role in the Carnival celebrations in February. They used to hang a rope across the main plaza, attach chickens by their feet so the head and body would hang down. Then the Quintos would whack them to death like living piñatas until they were no longer. Some were bothered by the "tradition" and it was stopped.

The chickens were then eaten as part of the festivities.

Now the Quintos can focus on drinking, and selling cheap drinks to raise money to have more parties to get drunk again.

The United Statesian

PS An even more gruesome tradition in another Spanish village has been put to a stop as well. The Quintos used to throw a live goat off the top of the church tower. BBQ goat meat was always on the menu.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Three Kings vs Santa Claus... and Baby Jesus in the middle

Baby Jesus has a booboo... or in Spanish....Tiene pupa!

Dear Citizens of the world,

This Baby Jesus or Niño Jesús– pronounced /NEENyo HayZUS/ in Spanish – is a traditional part of Christmas decorations in Spain, but with a makeover. This photo is from a Spanish hospital that made Niño Jesús look more like the patients so that they would laugh a bit and relate better.

Although, you could say that the Niño Jesús got caught up in a fight between Santa and the Three Kings (Los Tres Reyes Magos). In Spain, the Three “Magic” Kings are the ones that have always brought the gifts to the good little boys and girls. Since they were the ones bringing gifts to Baby Jesus it only makes sense that they give to all children.

A more traditional look at the Niño Jesus.

Kings Day (Reyes) is on January 6th, which means that kids and teachers get an extra week off over the holidays. However, it also means that children didn't get their gifts until the 6th of January... after two weeks of vacation... and just before the return to normal.

Child: “Oh, what a wonderful gift! I am going to....”
Parents: “Not so fast... time for bed... you have school tomorrow!”

This technical problem was partly solved by importing Santa... Now parents can give the main gifts on the 24th or 25th of December. Children can then play with their toys during the long Winter break. Later, on kings day more gifts come. Some kids only get one set of gifts, but most seem to get two sets now.

And Niño Jesús? He's laid up in the hospital, wondering what hit'm.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The United Statesian

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nativity Pooper -- Spanish Tradition

Dear Citizens of the world,

After finding this figure in a large nativity scene (Belen in Spanish) in a small church in the Pyrenees. I immediately decided to find out more and write a blog. The cagón could be translated as the pooper, crapper or sh!tter. I will use the translation of "pooper" for this post.

This image was shocking to me because I am used to the traditional scene of the happy family, three kings, angels, some farm animals, etc.

Apparently, the tradition of the Nativity Pooper comes from the Catalan region of Spain. The Catalan name is "Cagagner" (click for orignal source in Spanish). The Pooper is a symbol of good luck and prosperity:

Poop = fertilizer = a good harvest = prosperity = happiness

The pooper also gives a more "real" feel to the scenes. These nativities in Spain are huge. They cover several square meters with tons of bark, sand, dirt... and figures that include the poopers.

The nativity scenes even include mechanized figures and lighting to show day and night. The Pooper at the top has a mechanised arm with toilet paper doing a continuous wiping action.

There are poopers with a likeness of famous people - even Obama! Does your nativity scene include an Obama pooper? It doesn't? ... well then I guess that it is not complete!
The United Statesian

Sunday, November 22, 2009

El Pueblo - Part IV Archbishop's Bridge

Dear citizens of the world,

Burn! Burn! Let the village burn!

Although it might come as a shock, my Pueblo is not the only pueblo in Spain. Just five kilometers away there is a village called "El Puente del Arzobispo" (The Archbishop's Bridge - An Archbishop that owned the neighboring village ordered a bridge built over the Tajo River to make the pilgrimage to Guadalupe easier and safer.)

On the 25th Novermber the village celebrates the "Chozas" festival to honor Santa Catalina. The bonfires are built in the middle of the roads all around the village. When the fire burns down the embers are used to BBQ meats (some call the meat juicy, others might call it fatty, yet others just call them tasty).

How did the festival start? The origins are not clear, but most likely, people waiting to cross the river (pre-bridge times) often had to camp out and they would make big bonfires while waiting for dawn when they could forge the river.
Here I offer you some pics from the festival... unfortunately I did not have my camera and I had to catch the happenings the best I could with my mobile phone.

Another day we can talk about the ceramic art which makes the village famous.

The United Statesian

Sunday, November 08, 2009

El Pueblo - "All Saints' Day"

Dear citizens of the world,

All Saints day is the Spanish tradition that precedes the Halloween invasion from the West.

November 1st is traditionaly the day that families remember the departed by visiting cemeteries to clean the tombs and leave flowers. The pueblo of Torrico is no different.

This tile is from the first person buried in the village cemetery. It loosely translates as:

"Stop and contemplate,
This tile, sad and cold,
Which will one day arrive,
Without a doubt in dust you will be."

There were a few children dressed up for Halloween and looking for treats, but there were many more visiting the cemetary and the grounds were full of fresh (and plastic) flowers.

I do not know what the future holds for Spain, but I hope that the "Party" version of the holiday does not come to replace the Spanish tradition of remembering their dead.

A parting shot from the center of Torrico with the sunset on All Saints Day the Church with its' Crane's nests and the Plaza España and its' oddly named "Justice Roll."

The United Statesian

El Pueblo "Almond Harvest"

Dear citizens of the world,

Almond harvest time has come and gone. We spent a couple days in the pueblo, collecting almonds. It is hard work, but I like it -- well, once a year.

This is a photo of the almonds while they are still on the tree with both the outer soft shell and the inner hard shell (as seen in the first picture above).

Why is collecting them fun? The process starts by laying large nets under the tree, then I get to use a long stick to whack the tree until it gives up all its' almonds. End of fun part...
Then the outer shells have to be taken off (sometimes not so easy). There is then a drying-out period and the last leg is to break the hard inner shell to get the "almond meat" out... careful to not crush the almond in the process.
Eat and enjoy all year long. The harvest this year has been bad because there was not enough rain. Many almonds are "fruitless." And a violent downpoor at the end of the season stripped some trees of the fruit just before harvest time - as well as killing one of the locals.

Now we have to prepare to use the almonds to make Mazapan - the traditional Christmas sweet from Toledo, Spain.
A shot of the almond tree in bloom this spring.

I leave you with this parting shot of the sunset over the almond trees in the pueblo after a long, hard day in the fields.

The United Statesian

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Pilgrimage across Spain Part III - "Food! A la Riojana"

Fresh tomatoes and Mushrooms the size of a baby's head!
Dear citizens of the world,
Wine is definitely important in the Rioja region... and the pilgrimage. But it is only part of the balanced diet. Food from this part of Spain is important as well.
We were lucky to see the end of the wine harvest (see last blog), but it was also mushroom season. The hills and forests are infested with mushroom pickers. I don't collect shrooms since I can't tell a delicious boletus edulis from a poisonous Boletus reticulatus! I just enjoy eating them, especially when they are sauteed with olive oil and garlic. Yummy!

"Tortilla" Spanish egg and potato omlette

We did have some Spanish Tortilla - probably the most common cooked dish that you can find all around Spain, but we did try many other local delights:

Blood Sausage from Burgos with bell pepper garnishing

I highly recomend the blood sausage. The variation from Burgos is made with rice. This specific dish lasted just long enough for me to get a picture of it before being devoured.

The "Peppers" garnish is a signature element in Riojana cooking. Many dishes in Spain are "A la Riojana" which often means that there will be a sauce with bell peppers.

The second morning, at sunrise, we found a woman in the village grilling red peppers. She was making huge Spanish standards it was probably just enough to compliment lunch for a small familly ;-)

Grilling red bell peppers - a key element in Rioja cooking.

Of course, we had a good excuse to eat so much. We walked 50km in two days, with our houses on our backs. We still have three days of Camino left in the Rioja region... I am looking forward to it... especially after seeing the pictures of the food and wine again...

Que Apraveche!

Parting shot - Last days of harvest in Rioja

The United Statesian

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pilgrimage across Spain II - "Grape Juice"

"Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more."

--Proverbs 31:6-7

The origins of the "Addictive" Santiago Trail are religious, but the reasons for doing the trail have mulitipied - drinking great wine is one of those reasons.

Our last stretch of the trail just happened to be through the Rioja region of Spain. Rioja is the most famous wine region in Spain and outside the country. Therefore, following scripture - and good taste - we decided to try as many glasses (and bottles) as possible.

We crossed the Rioja region at the end of the harvest season. There were tons of sweet grapes for us to pick and eat as we went along. However, it became harder and harder to bear the sight of so many grapes going to waste. The wine growers have limits and they are punished if they pick too much. This means that on most years there are tons of grapes that just rot. Prices are kept up, but my heart sinks at the sight.

We finished our trip the Rioja region by visiting a local monestary with beautiful Romanesque architecture and details. One of the stone carvings around the door depicts a vinyard with a man, lying under the vines, sucking every drop out of the grapes! The head is upside-down, but you might guess from the eyes that it is none other!

Mr. Monkey helping to finish the bottle of Rioja at dinner.

The United Statesian

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pilgrimage across Spain I - "Addiction"

Dear citizens of the world,

Like many things in life, logic plays only a small role in making decisions. Most people prefer to spend their weekends and holidays relaxing in comfort, others choose to walk (or cycle) across Spain on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Trails of of insanity that cause addiction (750 to 1000 km long).
Virgen of "locura" Insanity -- Protecting pilgrims along the trail

After ten days of suffering through the heat of July and 250km, my partner had many bad memories and did not want to return. However, after the blisters dissapeared and the hours of walking in 35ºC heat were forgotten, she decided to return to the Santiago trail with great enthusiasm... twice!

Marcelino, the eternal pilgrim has taken this addiction to an extreme. He decided to dedicate his life to the trail and the pilgrims fourteen years ago when he became financialy independent. He spends his days sitting at a table in a park outside Logroño welcoming pilgrims, signing and stamping credentails (Pilgrim Passports), giving advice and handing out nuts and fruit.

The eternal pilgrim explains his behaviour by claiming complete addiction to the Santiago trail and its' ideals. Pilgrims are more friendly, helpful, caring, loving with others than in normal life. This feeling of constant love and support is what brings so many people back to the trail. Even to the extreme:

A monument to a pilgrim who died while on the way to Santiago

We were only on the trail for two days, but we had a great time, met nice people, drank fantastic wine, ate as much food as possible, and we will have memories (and photos) forever.

Maybe Marcelino is not so crazy after all?

The United Statesian

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Madrid 2016 - Hola Everyone! Nervously waiting...

Dear citizens of the world,

There are five cities on the edge of their seats, waiting for the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to choose the 2016 candidate.

Madrid is going all out for the election with activities supporting the city's candidacy for the 2016 Olympic Games. The students at my school decided to make a large banner supporting the candidacy with the multi-color hand symbol chosen in Madrid as the logo for the bid.

Some children even wrote comments like the one in this foto which reads, "I hope that the 2016 Olympic Games will be in Madrid!"

On Friday, October 2nd, we will all know if the years of preparation and support (which has involved the whole city) will be worth while.

The United Statesian

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Torrico -- Fiestas del Pueblo, Part II "The earplugs"

Dear citizens of the world,

My first post about the annual San Gil fiestas in Torrico was crying out for a second part. Many people asked how the fiestas were in 2009.

For the most part, things were tranquil. There is always excess, but improvements have been made -- most noteably, I bought ear plugs.

There was lots of music: flamenco to warm up, traditional Spanish songs for the older crowd that turn in at 2:00 am and popular dance music for younger ones. Techno started at about 6:00 am, but I was already sleeping -- thanks to my ear plugs!

This years festivities were special for the family because there was a 50th wedding anniverssary. After a short ceremony in the village church we went off to have appetizers in the garage (much nicer than it sounds). There were kilos of Spanish ham, cold cuts, chorizo, chips, olives, cheese and local sweets: Roscos (small dense donuts) and Floretas (Large flakey flower shaped sweets, dripping in honey. This was to warm up the belly.

At three in the afternoon we assembled in a posh wedding banquet restaurant for the 12 course meal. I personally think that eleven courses is the limit, but excess is the name of the game.

After lunch, we rolled on home for a long siesta to rest up for dinner and the evening events.

Before the music, there were flowers for the many couples completing their 50th wedding anniversary and the crowning of the Torrico Beauty Queen.

The weekend was topped off by a village wide BBQ. There was free food and drinks for everyone. By food I mean fatty meats...the more fat the better.

Next year, repeat... but don't forget the earplugs.

The United Statesian

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Squatting -- Chinese relaxation

Man squatting outside the Big Goose Pagoda -- Xian, China

Dear citizens of the world,

This post is about one of those cultural tidbits. Countries are beginning to look similar with the same shops (Walmart), cafes (Starbucks), fast food joints (McDonalds). However, there are still many things that can differenciate cultures or even shock while traveling.

My travel companion was astounded to see so many people squatting in China. Chinese people squat to rest, read a newspaper, talk on mobile phones, take pictures, and to use the WC but Westerners only associate squatting with bowl movements.

Researching the topic I found another post on squatting with a link to a page with the benefits of squatting. A fellow United Statesian posted (a technical) "Seven reasons to squat."

I have to admit that I am not so good at squating (lack of practice); however, it is an important skill for travelers. Lack of knowledge can even lead to injury!

My "squat story" happened on my recent trip to China. We were with a tour group on our way to the sacred mountain of Hua Shan. The minibus stopped and we had very little time to do our business. The facilities were a semi-closed concrete block with three porcelain holes -- no privacy. I went into full squat, did my best to not fall in the hole while ... , but when I got up again I realized that I had re-injured my thigh (an old cycling injury).

A trip to a sacred mountain of more then 2000 meters (with dizzyingly high cliffs) and my injury comes from squating in a public toilet... go figure. Before traveling, I should have read these instructions on how to use a squat toilet...

The next day in Xian, I saw a man in a toilet (no walls) who was squating, smoking and reading the newspaper... now that's talent!

The United Statesian

PS Got a squat story? Post a comment by clicking on the link just below...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Demon Dogs - Part II

Dear citizens of the world,

Yes, the Demon Dogs have attacked! and they are winning.

The return to normal has been rude. Hours before my return, I came down with a serious sore throat. I have lost my voice in 24 hours; only able to communicate by blog.

The sad part is, the kids won't even be back for a week! I don't have a good reason to be sick!

I thought is was psychological at first (post-vacation syndrome), but my tongue has a yellow-green blanket and my throat is red and swollen.

C'est la vie,

The United Statesian

PS This Demon Dog is actually a bird, but I am sure that you get the picture and we can stick with the lovely theme of Demon Dogs, without confusing things with Demon Birds which does not sound scary enough...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Demon Dogs and the unwilling return to normal!

Dear citizens of the world,

The Demon Dogs of September have returned.

They have sunk their bloodthirsty teeth.

The unwilling return to normal has begun!

School is starting soon and September 1st marks the beginning of the end...

...may God have mercy on us all!

The United Statesian

Photo contests - "How to choose?"

Dear citizens of the world,

I am now trying to send photos to participate in as many photo contests as possible. It is a great way to learn and an incentive to improve.

The hard part is choosing the photos. The art of photography is so subjective; each contest has so many possible winners. It is also very personal. Many pictures I take mean something to me, but I don't know how others see them...or what they see. Even if two people agree that they like a photo, they probably don't like it for the same reasons.

The above picture is from a bridge over the Bosphorus, outside of Istanbul:
it is taken in winter,
the weather is cold and crisp,
the shot is taken in Europe,
but the far shore is Asia,
the massive bridge dwarfs the container ship,
the mosque in the foreground is plain, elegant, clean,
double minarets are complimented by the double supports of the bridge,
smaller boats at the bottom help balance the picture and reinforce the contrasts,
both modern and new...

Many more aspects connected to the photo are impossible to see (but they are important to me):
The water is full of thousands of jellyfish,
It is my birthday,
smells of Turkey from the market nearby,
the fuzzy feeling I have after having a hot Turkish coffee,
the cold winter air and the warm afternoon sun,

This picture got me a 7th place in a competition years ago. Now I need to choose another picture for a new (colour) photo contest. Do you like it? What do you see? What do you feel?

Any and all comments are welcome. Please forward the link to anyone that would be interested in commenting.

The United Statesian

Monday, August 24, 2009

The "Pueblo" - Torrico

Citizens of the world,

Today, the topic is the Spanish "Pueblo" (Village). El Pueblo is a very important part of Spanish culture - almost everyone has one, but nobody seems to actually live there.

Most Spaniards live in big or medium sized cities, but that was not always the case. Urban areas have expanded greatly over the past two generations, but there is still a strong link to the pueblo.

The average age of some pueblos is over 60 - a few smaller villages have died out completely. However, there are still thousands of Pueblos that survive, in most part, thanks to the strong family and cultural bonds.

When we are not climbing mountains or traveling, we go to Torrico, our pueblo. The main reason is to visit family, but it is also a way to get away from the pollution and stress of the big city, relax, disconnect, and to get your hands dirty in the fields.

El pueblo also survives for practical reasons. For many families the pueblo and the extended family serve as a cheap babysitter for the long summer and winter breaks.

We usually go there to relax and swap travel stories; however, this weekend, end of August / begining of September, the San Gil Fiestas (the big annual bash) will be in full swing for a week.

The population of the pueblo doubles with everyone coming home and then doubles again at night with all the nearby villages that come to party.

An average day might go a bit like this:

The key word is excess!

14:00 Wake up after a fitful sleep (the party never really ends and the clean up crew is excessively noisy).
14:00 to 16:00 Have brunch and complain about stomach pains, from excessive eating, and the excessive heat.

16:00 to 18:00 Sleep siesta if you can find a shady spot or aircon to fight the 38ºC heat.
18:30 Have a snack (eating in excess) to recuperate from the long siesta.
19:00 to 21:00 Hang out at pool, taking dips to avoid the excessive heat and avoiding excessive use of energy
22:00 Eat a long dinner with excessive abandon ... nothing spared
to 02:00 Hanging out, getting dressed up and waiting for the right time to go out. Most people start arriving at 2:00 and the party gets into full swing at 4:00 or 5:00. There is an excessive amount of alcohol, but few get drunk, the music is excessively loud and the food keeps coming at all hours.
7:00 People are excessively tired from all the excess and try to get some rest to attack the next day of partying. Hard core group that arrived at 4:00 am party until 10 or 11 in the morning (when it is excessively hot to continue)... for a few days and repeat each year at the same time...

The United Statesian