Monday, July 21, 2014

Alter Native

Just like on my trip to Andorra, I've discovered more things that I miss about my Canadian hometown: live outdoor concerts, and the smell of pot.
Ciento Uno

Still found time for futbol, at a teteria (tea shop)

Place number one?  Málaga. The event?  Ciento Uno. As soon as I entered the stadium where the music festival was, I marvelled at the alternative crowd and realized how much I missed these types of people. Even though it felt like I was the only Asian there, no one stared at me. Málaga is a truly touristy city. And, as we watched Franz Ferdinand and Canadian group Rinôcerôse rock out, the waft of weed perked my senses.

Place number two?  Alcalá la Real, a small town of close to 20,000 that swells every year during EtnoSur, a free three-day international music event.  I only knew one band on the roster but the performances and venues didn't fail to blow me away. Again, I didn't spot a single Asian but because the crowd was a mix of liberal, hippy types and international music lovers, there were no stares. It was a very relaxed weekend of botellónes, botellónes, and more botellónes, and music from Africa, South America, and Spain. 
Alamedadosoulna, from Madrid

Aw come on,man.

Again, we found time for futbol.
During both events I had quite the intensive "classes", trying to decipher very strong Málaga and Jaén accents.  At one point my mind was ready to explode and I said to a friend, who spoke English, that I was hasta la narices (I've just about had it) with Spanish.  But still, I had a great time and look forward to doing it again!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Problem with Facebook Photos

Continuing with the theme of tech problems (although I finally fixed my phone), sometimes the problem isn't technology itself, but rather the users. Like when you take pics with your mobile, and your friend nudges you and says, "Send me the pics." In my case, when I answer "Okay", the word somehow leaves my mouth, magically undergoes a transformation midair, and reaches my friend's ear in the form of "Okay, I'll send them to your phone right this second. Even though I'm enjoying my time with you, I will drop everything and send you the photos right now.

But that's not what my "Okay" means. "Okay" means I'll send it when I'm back home. When I'm near WiFi. When I'm rested. It may take a while, but I'll send it.
Granted, I'm okay with being reminded. It's natural to forget. But when it's within the same afternoon, it angers me. My friend V took a photo by the pool with a friend. A few minutes later, the friend asked why she hadn't sent it yet. Uh, because they were supposed to be relaxing by the pool at that moment.

Before I get high and mighty about Facebook use, let me offer a pre-disclaimer that I am one of the most vain people on this planet. I use Facebook, I have a blog, hell, I was born in the year of the Snake, and guess what one of the personality traits are? Vanity.

However, I don't think it's fair to inconvenience others with your vanity. Think about it. It's not a photo you need for your passport, it's a stupid photo of you posing, with some stupidly gorgeous background, and you want to post it on stupid Facebook so that you can plead with your audience, "Look at me."

When I visited Málaga recently, an acquaintance I didn't know well asked if I would send her my photos I took that night. We were in a loud place, I misunderstood her Spanish, and answered in a way that made her think I'd already done so.

The next morning in V's apartment, as I sleepily stumbled out of bed, V asked me to send her the photos. With her WiFi, I did so. I then turned my data off for the rest of the day, to enjoy my time with V.

Hours later I turned it back on, only to be greeted by a barrage of angry messages by the other girl. "You said last night you'd sent them and you lied!" "Why aren't you answering me?" "You sent them to V and you're ignoring me!" "It was a mistake to be your friend!" I apologized for forgetting to send them that morning, explained I'd been really sleepy, I'd misunderstood her Spanish the night before, etc. It wasn't enough. She was inconsolable. I sent the photos, turned off my data once more, and declared to V that I never wanted to see her friend ever again because she's insane.

A day later the girl sent an apology, but the friendship is ruined. If a person can get worked up like that over photos, what would happen if bigger problems sprung up? I don't want to be around to find out.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Eating in Spain

As accustomed as I've become to Spanish culture, one thing that still evades me is eating on the country's timetable.

Here's the Spanish way:

0800 Coffee, maybe a cookie or two
1100 Coffee and a half-baguette (media tostada) with olive oil, tomato paste and maybe jam
1400 Lunch
1800 Merienda consisting of fruit or a pastry
2100 or later     Dinner consisting of tapas (appetizers) with each beverage

Here's my Canadian way:

0800 Coffee, toast / oatmeal, cheese, fruit
1100 I try to eat like my friends with either una media or fruit, but actually I'm ready to eat an entire leg of jam
1400 About to faint, I make lunch which includes a tapa fit for two, a main course, dessert, and tea
1600 Merienda #1
1800 Merienda #2, now feeling like a lard-ass
2000 Dinner at home consisting of a plate of pasta, because the tapas at the bar aren't enough for me
2100 Tapas, including the ones my friends don't eat. Leaving the last “piece of shame” (el trozo de vergüenza) on the plate, of course.
Typical Canadian brunch

I've been here close to a year and I'm still not used to Spanish people's eating habits. Yesterday while touring Úbeda, I pulled out a bag of pipas (sunflower seeds) and wolfed some down. I ended up having to buy another bag of snacks because I was ready to faint. It produced giggles from my friends, who said if I'm like this now, what about when my work schedule changes to the daytime? I guess I'll be brown-bagging it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Prezzies & tech

There seems to be no job with higher honour than as an English auxiliary in Spain. All of us are blogging about the gifts, student presentations, hugs, and tears we received upon the end of our contracts. Me notwithstanding: I got an engraved pen, books about the sierra mountains, handmade elastic bracelets, Úbeda pottery, a dress, the biggest goodbye card ever, and this...
The first carve
A leg of jam! Iberico, to boot. I'd always dreamt of buying myself one of these but thought it was too indulgent. Luckily my students did the indulging for me! Every day I carve thin slices of this precious meat and put it in a sandwich, sprinkle it on a bowl of vegetables, or make ice cream (just kidding).

However, the worst gift I got was from my mobile company. I switched from Orange (too expensive as prepago [prepaid]) to tuenti (non-permanent contract) and right away there were problems. Firstly, I didn't know I had to liberate (unblock) the phone. I got that done via a local store, but then there was no coverage. So I'm Whatsapp-less and without text at home. All I can use is WiFi at my workplace, which is a 10-minute walk away.

Since arriving in Spain 9 months ago I have not had home internet. I've relied on using it at two workplaces, plus data on my mobile when at home. There are times when it's hard. I feel it most when I want to do online freelance, which requires constant internet access in order to check messages from potential clients. But besides that, I have survived just fine. I accomplish so much more without home internet or television: I concentrate on my food during meals, I progress in the books I'm reading, I play guitar. The last hobby is one I've always wanted to get better at, and haven't been able to because when it's time to relax, I've been conditioned to turn on the boob tube or check Facebook. On a side note, a friend asked if he should get on the Facebook bandwagon and I answered, “DON'T do it. Total timesuck.”

When I'm forced to go somewhere to use WiFi, I'm much more efficient with my time. I catch myself clicking on external links, do an imaginary slap on my wrist, and get back to work. Because of our siesta hour at 14:00, there's a timer on how long I can be online before my workplace closes for lunch.

Now that I don't have Whatsapp for a while, I can exercise my freedom to stay home since I don't have cash for going out, and my friends know I'm technologically screwed. But because Villacarrillo is tiny, if I do have the urge to be with friends I'll simply walk around and come across someone I know.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Is there joy in being alone?

Last year, I wrote about how hard it was to be a tourist alone in the small towns of Jaén. There seems to be a general consensus that people do everything together, and being alone seems to be regarded as the worst thing in the world. Eating solo and going to events solo is just not done in Úbeda and Villacarrillo. In a pinch, when you're hungry there's no problem standing at the bar and downing a coffee or a beer and a tapa. But it's rare for a woman to do it, nevermind an Asian woman.

Because of my new fear of going out alone, I'd been missing out on a lot: concerts, the San Isidro party in the countryside, and foodie events, just to name a few. So when the opportunity came to watch my student perform in a flamenco show, I decided to bite the bullet and go alone, as none of my friends were interested. I didn't care if I'd end up sitting alone with strangers. This was going to be my first time watching flamenco, Carmen was one of my favorite students, and I wasn't about to repeat my abysmal track record of missing out on opportunities.

When I arrived at the theatre, Carmen's mother spotted me and I told her I didn't have a seat. She prompted me to sit with the family. I detected a slight air of confusion as to why I was alone, but we chatted and the awkwardness disappeared quickly.
Carmen - always in the centre, because she was an excellent dancer.

Los niños bailando!
As soon as I saw Carmen perform I thanked my lucky stars I'd gone to the theatre. She was a spectacular dancer – maybe even the best one! She didn't look like a teenager; she had the air of a woman – her movements spelled confidence from years of training. I was awestruck.

After the show, friends invited me to a verbena - an outdoor plaza party with live music and a bar. I went to bed early – 3:30 a.m. is early for me now – while the band was still churning it out.
 The next day, I checked out Corpus Cristi. This is a yearly event where people decorate the streets with olive tree trimmings, flowers, coloured sawdust, and pebbles, amongst other things.

Near the end of my walk, I suddenly felt hungry and was glad I'd gone alone. If I'd been with a group I would have felt obliged to stick with them, or perhaps go to a bar and spend money I didn't have. Instead, because I defied the norm and took a chance, I had great experiences that got me in touch with local culture.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why I'm so Boring

This summer, I'm staying in Villacarrillo. Besides a few private classes here and there, and the occasional class at the academy, my days will be spent working on my computer at home, or tackling Spanish text, while the sun broils away outside. At night I'll be sitting at little plastic tables perched outside of bars, sipping tinto de verano while every half hour a car will whiz by, a scant meter from my chair.

Some friends have asked why I'm not flying home, or travelling my butt off. One reason: consumer debt. I came to Spain with almost no debt, but without any salary for the first few months, I resorted to charging everything. I didn't look at the balance until recently, which made my eyes pop out. I had mismanaged my spending. I thought I'd been paying off the debt properly, but the monthly contribution wasn't enough. I felt angry at the way I hadn't tracked my expenses, with all the shopping and travelling I'd done: Madrid, Oporto, Andorra, Madrid, Morocco, Madrid, Madrid (can you tell I love going there?).... it all adds up. Debt is something that's haunted me ever since my first trip to Italy, and it's been that dangerous lover that I keep coming back to because I love travel.

Another reason I'm happy to stay in Vcar is that unfortunately, la junta gave me Jaén capital for my next job contract. It is exactly opposite of what I'd wanted for my second year, but they claim due to budget cuts all auxiliaries at adult schools in my region are being re-posted to bilingual high schools and elementary schools. So instead of my lovely village of 10,000 with adults, I get a city of 100,000 and teens. I'm sad, but after pulling every stunt possible to try to convince la junta to let me stay here I finally gave up and decided to roll with it.... especially since the salary will help me tackle reason #1.

So I choose to stay and make the most of my pueblo. Because it's the little things that excite me. When I order a drink, and the bartender is able to understand me the first time, I don't merely think, “I just ordered summer wine.” I think, “HOLY SH*TBALLS I CAN ORDER TINTO DE VERANO LIKE A PRO!” When I tell a joke at a party, it's not just, “Oh, I made them laugh.” It's “OMG THEY'RE ROLLING ON THE FLOOR IN TEARS MY SPANISH IS AWESOME!”

When my buddy in my hometown asked why I wasn't coming back to Canada, which I'd originally said I'd do if la junta gave me Jaén, it was because a) I'd calmed the f*ck down, but mostly b) I love learning a new language. I love being immersed. I love knowing to leave the last tapa on the plate, because it's el trozo de vergüenza, as opposed to grabbing it and wolfing it down in front of staring eyes. I love understanding what the heck “Ven aqui pa' ca'!” means. I love that some of the kids I teach (and y'all know how I feel about teaching kids) are becoming affectionate and giving me big hugs. I love walking home from the club at 5 in the morning, looking up and admiring the stars.

So don't feel bad for me. I can assure you, I'm extremely happy spending a lazy summer in my little village.

A Whatsapp convo I had with a friend.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Last night, a friend made sushi dinner for us. It was an amazing spread: chips, wine, homemade tuna pate, homemade hummus, bread with vegetable spread, and various types of sushi. I was hesitant to eat the salmon pieces, as the sushi had been made an hour or more before we started eating. So it was warm. However, I couldn't resist trying some, and no one died after the party.
A month ago I made yogurt at home. I'd always wanted to, but because the recipe involves letting warm milk sit in an oven overnight, I'd always been afraid I'd kill myself. Not only did I not, but I produced a delicious, healthy snack.

I've become less germophobic since moving to Spain. This country has interesting contradictions in terms of hygiene. For example, when you shop for produce, you either have to use plastic gloves before touching fruits and vegetables, or wait until a clerk is free, who will handle the food for you. Allowing customers to serve themselves is a no-no. (That being said, one of the fruterias I go to lets me grab what I need)

On the other hand, go to a bar or club and you can bet that there won't be any toilet paper. Although it's a great way to make friends with the other ladies by asking for some kleenex, it's almost an adventure deciding whether to do your business at the club, or wait 'til you get home. And forget about washing your hands. There's almost never soap or anything to dry your hands with. Another reason to love the “two kisses” custom, as opposed to the handshake.

What do these examples show? That perhaps we need to worry less about germs, and trust that our bodies will take care of us. That being said, I could never let go of my practice of washing my hands. I can hear my friends now breathing a sigh of relief.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Not all kids are bad

Fact: I teach kids sometimes. Fact: when those days come, I dread it. The kids, in general, are good. But get them in a group, after a day of being jailed in their classrooms, and it's like the apocalypse has been unleashed. They don't listen to me, they act like they don't understand me when I speak English, they start wrestling.... it often quickly disintegrates into a sh*tshow.

But hey, with the bad comes the good (re: it pays my grocery bill).

So when a teacher from Úbeda, who is also a student of mine, asked me to speak to a class of 50 kids, all 11 - 12 years old, I felt scared but said 'yes' anyway. Upon arrival at her school she introduced me to every teacher, the school doctor, and the cafeteria staff. It was a small school but full of energy. She explained that they've had to make do with what they get from the government. At the same time, they work hard to create a 'safe bubble' that is separate from the turmoil which some of the gitano students experience at home.

With 50 sets of eyes staring at me, I started talking to the surprisingly well-behaved children. My speaking level was low at first, but later I realized that their level of English was actually quite good. They asked many interesting questions, and some that are normally considered faux-pas in Canada: “Is your family rich?” (I pointed at my clothes and said, 'Uh, no.'), “How OLD are you?” (oh how I love that question), and “Do you have a boyfriend?” (a question from a future player)

The kids were so excited when they presented the gifts. I received really cute elastic bracelets, each featuring the colours of the flags of my Canadian city, Andalucía, and Spain. Also, they had made a keychain decoration with an 'A'. Finally, I was given beautiful Úbeda pottery with the name of the school etched into it. Then the teacher pulled out the guitar and they sang a pitch-perfect “What a Wonderful World”. I was amazed by their talent, and I almost (ALMOST!) cried.

Then I went home with my student and enjoyed the most wonderful homecooked lunch with her family. She also gifted me a gorgeous Mango dress, which really touched me because it was an infinitely generous gesture. I was really flattered that she invited me to her school to speak to her children. I think it's a sign of what she thinks of my teaching ability, and I feel really honoured.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Eternal Running

In Canada, we have Tough Mudder, a super-fun but super-long race. Here in Jaén province, we had an obstacle race called Eternal Running in Cazorla, a nearby village. There were things similar to Tough Mudder: crawling under barbed wire, cement tunnels, and water obstacles. One difference in Tough Mudder is that the water included huge chunks of ice! C-O-L-D. Here, nothing. I laughed at the locals who plunged in and yelled, "Que frio!" For me, it was like a pleasant bath.

Another difference: in Tough Mudder we had the "pleasure" of getting on our bellies and crawling through mud. Here, ROCKS. Tiny, sharp pebbles and sometimes, a bit of broken glass. It wasn't included on purpose, rather someone didn't clean thoroughly before the race. Just one example of how safety features were largely missing in Cazorla. Another example: we climbed olive harvest trucks (of course) piled with hay bales 2 - 3 metres high. In Tough Mudder, climbing obstacles were higher but if you fell there were foamies or the soft earth to land on. In Eternal Running, there was the pavement. That was it. You can bet I held on for dear life.

Also, in Tough Mudder the water obstacles can be deep. Only one was deep in Cazorla, near the end. By then I was extremely tired, and had no idea how deep it was until plunging in at the end of a huge slide. I suddenly found myself underwater, and in my tired state struggled for what felt like forever to the surface. Even though the side of the pit wasn't far, it took many scary seconds to crawl and kick towards it.

Near-death experiences aside, there were some interesting cultural differences. At the food stop in the middle of the Eternal Running race, a food and drink table had been set up. In Tough Mudder, this table consists of bananas and water. In Cazorla, they served 3 types of munchies, wine, beer, ... and water. Everyone stopped running to nibble and sip. Because Eternal Running is timed, the competitive Canadian in me reached in, grabbed water, and drank it while continuing to run.

Not that this improved my time in any way. I was #424 out of about 500 runners.

There was some cool stuff that happened after the race. For example, a couple got married live before crossing the finish line.

Then Eternal Running served everyone paella - cooked in a giant pan. It was so delish, I returned for seconds.

The race was such a fun experience! I'm glad I got a chance to experience this type of obstacle race in a different country.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stranded in Spain, Pt. 4: Morocco Madhouse

As the clouds cleared during our descent into Fez, I was shocked by how green the countryside was. The weather, too, was a surprise – it was foggy.

The taxi dropped us off in the middle of the Fez medina, where our hotel host met us. Good thing, because her business was located in the middle of a maze (Google map the Fez medina, you'll see what I mean). The path became so small at times that a human could barely squeeze through. B walked into the hotel lobby first while I waited behind. After hugging T and Tam she said, “Oh, I forgot a bag at the door,” and she came to get me. The look of shock on T's face was hilarious; for five full seconds it was as if he had no idea who I was. When he realized, we all hugged and laughed. It was a great moment because we'd overcome the hardships and had reunited.

Fez was my first exposure to the medina life. I dressed somewhat more conservatively than usual, but we experienced almost no harassment because we had T with us. When Tam was alone in Casablanca, it was a different story. It was also my first exposure to the maze-like streets of the medina. There was a cacophany of sounds and sights. People were extremely friendly, but most of them were also trying to make a buck. I couldn't count how many times people offered to guide us to the tannery or back to our hotel. We'd circumvent them and ask store owners instead, who also tried to make a buck by luring us into their shops. “It's free to look!” they'd say.
Lost - again

Tiny streets

The famous tannery
My first lesson in Morocco transportation was when we tried to take the train from Meknés to Morocco. “It'll be six hours,” said Tam. It turned out to be only three, because the train was so incredibly packed that we had to stand / sit in a tiny corner of the compartment the entire time. It was a nightmare. We tried to busy ourselves with games or reading, but when we got to the capital Rabat, we decided at that moment to escape. As we attempted to disembark, people's hands were reaching for our bags. I was extremely afraid it would get stolen, so I didn't accept anyone's help. But when the hands were reaching for my arm to assist me down the stairs, I realized they weren't trying to steal from me, rather to help me off. I waved and smile my appreciation. On the platform, we were so happy to have escaped the hell of the train that we cheered and did a group hug.
More Morocco green

How I sat for 3 hours
We ended up renting a “grand taxi” to Marrakech. A long, expensive drive, but worth not having to deal with the train. It was nighttime when we arrived. As we walked towards our hotel, I saw smoke and lights in the distance. “What is that, a riot?” I asked. T answered, “That, Aggie, is the Djemaa el-Fna. We're about to enter a madhouse."

If you want to visit a place that is the answer to every stereotype you've ever had about Morocco, visit the Djemaa el-Fna at night, the busiest, biggest plaza in Marrakech's medina. Pushy vendors, snake charmers, drumming in every want it, it's there. One henna vendor would NOT let go of my hand. T had to physically lift me by my shoulders to get me out of her grasp.
On our second day we met up with a Couchsurfer who knew quite a bit about Marrakech. We accompanied him to some extranjero activities: first stop, a cafe where there was trivia in English! Afterwards, we sauntered over to a karaoke bar, and proceeded to sing our drunken hearts out. My first pick, "We are Young" by F.u.n., wasn't great. I grew some balls for my next pick: "Rolling on the River", the Tina Turner version. I brought out the Tina in me and proceeded to purr, shimmy, and belt it out. The club was instantly on their feet - EVERYONE danced! It was my best audience reaction ever. Afterwards, a local came up to me and said, "I hope you are not offended, but we want to give you a nickname - Creedence China Revival!" I laughed and said, "Okay, cool!"
There's nothing like going to a karaoke bar and hearing English favourites belted out in foreign accents. And having people run onto the stage to join you in a true multi-cultural version of "We Are The World". That night in the karaoke bar really encapsulated what this trip was about. Yes, it was too short. Yes, at times it tired me out. But near the beginning of our journey, when B and I were on the train heading from Málaga to Madrid, she apologized for keeping me from my trip and I responded, "I honestly don't mind." Because this trip wasn't about putting another pinpoint on my map, rather it was about forging alliances. When I left Marrakech, I hugged B goodbye and, commenting on everything we'd been through together, told her, "You know we're sisters now, right?" And with a chug of the taxi engine and a final look out the back window, I left.