Friday, November 23, 2012

Catch Me If You Can

¡Hola todos!
Hope you all are recovering from the post-Thanksgiving food coma and are relishing the fact that new cooking will not be necessary for the next week or two.  I guess Thanksgiving is never truly "over" until all of the leftovers are consumed.  Just an aside, for my Thanksgiving I went out for some tapas with some friends, and we did the classic "what are you thankful for" table discussion, specifically relating it to our studying abroad experience.  Although I could go on and on, I'll just mention one thing from my list which I hadn't thought about much until last night.  I realized that I'm thankful for the opportunity to view the world as a global family.  It seems like everyday I meet new people from all different areas of the globe, and it's so normal and comfortable for me now.  It is true that our respective countries have various cultural differences, but at the same time doesn't each family member bring something unique to the table? I'll extrapolate this a bit and say that meeting and befriending people from other countries is NECESSARY for peace and fellowship.  As I watched the images of the new Israeli-Gaza battle on the news and the ancient hatred that exists there, I thought to myself how things would be different if the powers behind those rockets had done a study abroad program together, taking a stroll in the park and doing karaoke in the evening.  How much more difficult it is to order the annihilation of a group of people knowing that one of your friends is there!  True, even in our families we have disagreements and may even be angry with each other for a time, but the mark of a loving family is one which is willing to fight the good fight to forgive one another.  Are we not all children of the same God, created and loved by He that is Love?  We must challenge ourselves to remember this constantly and think of countries as composed of human individuals, not as political entities.

Now, after that little tidbit, you may be wondering about the title of this post.  This may sound a bit odd, but thinking of titles is one of my favorite parts of writing this blog.  So, for those who have seen the movie "Catch Me If You Can" (highly recommended), the answer is No, the title does not imply that I am now an international criminal printing near perfect blank checks, forging identities, and eluding both the FBI and international police.  Rather, the "Me" refers to my trip to Fatima and Lisboa, Portugal last week and the "You" refers to me.  First off, it's important to note that I didn't really know anyone going on this trip, organized through the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) Santiago.  I was especially interested in Fatima, and I figured Lisboa would be pretty cool, so I bought the tickets nonetheless.  After leaving very early from Santiago on Friday the 16th, we arrived in Fatima around 10 am or so and would only be there for 2 hours.  Soon after eating breakfast, we went to explore the sanctuary of Fatima, which was a lot more empty than I thought it would be (you can see what I mean in the pictures).  In that sense, Fatima does feel like a pilgrimage site since it appears people only come for religious reasons (i.e. not many tourists).  The church was absolutely gorgeous, and when we entered they were starting Mass in Portuguese.  Other people from the group just took a few pictures and left, but I decided to stick around and try to understand as much of Mass as possible.  I left at the beginning of the homily and started to make my way back to the buses, but lo and behold my "Psych-like" memory had failed me.  For whatever reason, I simply could NOT find the buses with the clock ticking, the heavy rain clouding my glasses (and lack of umbrella), and the sense of shame being lost since Fatima is really small.  Muchísimas gracias a Dios (Many thanks to God) that I found a man who pointed me in the right direction.  Upon entering the bus, I looked (and probably smelled) like a wet dog, but I just didn't care.  In retrospect, I guess being left behind at a very holy sanctuary wouldn't have been the worst thing. :) Also, if you want to learn more about the Miracle at Fatima, check out this video from EWTN:

After that incident at Fatima, I told myself I wouldn't get separated from the group again.  I even met three girls from the United States (two from Wisconsin, one from North Carolina), so I now had a safety net.  We checked into the hotel around 4 and immediately walked to el Castelo de Sao Jorge (the Castle of St. George), located on a hill above the city.  As you'll see in some of the pictures, the castle is incredibly well preserved, like many of the archaeological sites around Lisboa.  After about an hour or a little more at the castle, it looked like people were starting to leave, so I found myself close to the exit.  However, curiosity killed the cat, salted the snail (I've heard it both ways), and I wandered toward the back of the castle, taking a few pictures of an archaeological dig.  Surprise, surprise, that I had inadvertently lost the group once again, this time in the heart of Lisboa.  Despite being in such a large city by myself, I felt much better about being lost this time since I figured I could find my way back to the hotel (which I did, no big deal; on the way I even found a nice restaurant with great food and good prices).  In summary, for the first day of the trip I definitely felt like I was constantly trying to "catch" the group, but having had that experience, I now know I can overcome it in the future.

Just a few final comments about the trip before some pictures:
1) On Saturday, we visited a small town called Sintra, which was stunning for its views of the cities below, its cloud forest, zip-lining (which I think only operates in spring or summer), and many castles and palaces.  For some of the reasons stated above, it certainly reminded me of Costa Rica!
2) Pasteis de Belem (Pastries of Belem) were fantastic and a must have if you're in Lisboa.
3) On a more somber note, Lisboa is the first city I've seen here that has a serious poverty problem.  Outside one business on one block, I saw at least 10 people, maybe more, sleeping on the streets in proximity to one another.  Though I've seen many demonstrations (including the national strike on the 14th of November), the trip to Lisboa was the real eye-opening experience to what they call the "crisis" here in Spain and Portugal.  To say that the crisis is hurting people would be an understatement, clearly.  With poverty, I'm never sure what is the best way to help, but upon seeing this I will challenge myself to find what that way is.

Now, the link for the pictures and a few examples if you all don't have Snapfish:



Thanks again for reading! I wish you all the best as we conclude with our national holiday and begin to prepare for the preparation (Advent) for the universal celebration (Christmas).  ¡Ciao!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Street Smarts in Barcelona

¡Hola todos!I hope this blog post finds you in a state of peace of mind, perhaps eating some leftover Halloween candy, watching the leaves fall, and being utterly bewildered as to why some radio stations have started playing Christmas music.  A week ago, I traveled with my friend Jenna to quite possibly one of the liveliest and dynamic cities in Spain, the great herald of the Mediterranean coast, Barcelona.  It was everything I wanted and more for so many reasons.  I think the pictures I have linked to this post will show a lot more than I can write about, but I'll include some whimsical anecdotes to supplement nonetheless.  Here's the link below:
I just realized you have to have a Snapfish account to view the photos, so for those of you who don't have Snapfish nor Facebook, here's a few photos just to show how awesome the city was.

 Being a history major and someone generally concerned about current events, I thought I would share my impression of what is transpiring in Cataluña (the autonomy of which Barcelona is the capital), especially since I'm unaware if American news has covered any of it.  In recent months, there has been a growing political movement within Cataluña calling for the independence of the autonomy as a nation separate from España.  The president of the autonomy, Artur Más, has been the spokesperson of the movement, often emphasizing the differences between Cataluña and the rest of the country (though every autonomy has its own unique culture).  One set of events which sparked controversy was a move from Cataluña's government to try to force all the schools, from grade school to the university, to teach solely in catalán in place of a balance between the two languages (the other being español).  Just recently, Artur Más went to Russia to try to get support from the Kremlin because apparently when Russian tourists come to España, they most often go to Cataluña.  Notifications such as these appear in the various newspapers every day.  That being said, I'm unsure how serious the prospect of an independent Cataluña is.  When I've talked with native Spaniards around here, they more or less say that it's just a bunch of show.  Cataluña ALWAYS wants independence it seems.  From a more practical standpoint, the outlook for their cause seems bleak since the likelihood that the United Nations or the European Union would recognize it is indescribably low at this point.  In Barcelona, I saw a few independence flags and posters, but not more than I have seen in Santiago.  Vamos a ver.

Now, based on my experience in one of the greatest cities in Spain, I now present to you a "Barcelona Travel Guide: Do's & Do Not's" (but mostly Do's)
1) DO: Stay in Fabrizzio's Guesthouse Barcelona, a fun little hostel in an apartment with the perfect location for travel.  Our host, Roger, was incredibly hospitable, spoke English so both of us could understand, and provided us with some helpful advice to get around the city.  Also, there was all day continental breakfast, a fully furnished kitchen if you wanted to cook, and clean beds and immaculate bathrooms.  Needless to say, it rocked.
2) DO: Go visit Antoni Gaudí's "La Sagrada Familia." You will encounter a line that wraps around half of the cathedral no matter what time of day it is and will likely wait there for at least 2 hrs, but it's so worth it! As you'll see in the pictures, the architecture and symbolism are simply incredible, and it still blows my mind that it won't be done until the middle of this century.  Also, don't forget to go to the museum while you're there, which is included in the price of the ticket (we almost did).
3) DO: Buy a metro pass and be prepared to be the most efficient city traveler ever.  As I've probably said before, Barcelona is an incredibly large city and walking a lot, even for someone now accustomed to walking like me, is simply impractical.  It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Barcelona has one of the most sophisticated underground rail systems I've used (which includes those of Boston and Washington D.C).  The longest wait time was only 4 minutes, and that rarely happened to us.  Also, MUCH cheaper than using a taxi the whole time.
4) DO: Go to the Picasso museum and behold works of creative genius from all different periods in his life.  He is definitely one of those artists where you can't say that seeing one of his paintings is like seeing the rest.  His various interpretations of Velazquez's "Las Meninas" was especially interesting.
5) DO: Utilize the menú del día whenever and wherever possible.  For one usually reasonable price, you get two main dishes, a drink (water, beer, or wine), bread, and a dessert of your choice.  It was a little more difficult to find in Barcelona than in Santiago, but well worth the effort.
6) DO/DO NOT: If possible you should go to the open farmer's market off the street called Las Ramblas (which is famous for being a tourist district).  There is quite a variety of fruits, meats, and other products native to Cataluña to choose from, but be warned: the vendors themselves may as well be pickpockets.  What I mean by that is even if you say you're not interested, they will continue to ask how much you want.  When that happens, forget about manners and just run!
7) DO NOT: Leave your belongings unattended.  Roger told us that if you leave something for even a second, it will be picked up and you'll never see it again.  However, I utilized for the first time my heroic money belt, so I felt pretty secure and a little smug if I do say so myself.  In fact, DO use a money belt if possible.
8) DO NOT: Accept coconuts from a man with a pink basket on the beach near the Mediterranean sea.  Also, if he offers to take your photo, say no and walk away (the most important part).  We said we weren't interested in having a coconut (which appeared to be free, mind you) multiple times, but he just didn't leave.  We reluctantly took one just to make him happy, but then he made us pay for it! Obviously, we tried arguing the point to no avail, so to make him leave we paid 2 euros.  Case in point: never trust the prospect of free coconuts.
9) DO NOT: Spend the night in the Barcelona airport unless you have an air mattress and a parka.  Because our flight to Santiago was really early in the morning, we thought we would spend the night in the airport to save on the price of lodging and a taxi.  I've heard some airports are actually quite conducive to overnight stays but if Barcelona made that list I would laugh.  All of the benches before the security check had fixed armrests, so it was impossible to lay across.  Also, I'm pretty sure they shut the heat off during the night.  If you want a type of Bear Grylles' "Man vs. Wild" experience that is a little less intense, then this would be for you.

Thanks for reading once again, friends! Hope you enjoyed Halloween and more importantly All Saint's Day.  ¡Hasta luego!