Granada, Spain – Land of Spandex

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In my April post “Clueless in Andalusia”, I confessed my naiveté in thinking that I could just breeze up to the ticket office at the Alhambra and see any or all of it at my leisure.  By April, all tickets for the entire summer are gone, generally bought up by tour companies.  So I booked a day tour from Malaga which was supposed to take place in the morning followed by a trip into Granada Centro where I was staying.  I planned to ditch the tour at the Alhambra and stay as long as I liked.

What actually happened was they switched the Alhambra tour until late afternoon after they had thoroughly worn everyone out running around Granada Centro in the blazing heat.  Still, nobody wimped out and we did the full  tour which turned out to be pretty strenuous.  The place is huge with lots of steps to climb in the many gardens.  The place was also pretty packed. Thank goodness they limit the number of people who can enter or it would be impossible to see anything.   It was so worth it; the gardens in late April are spectacular but I was practically crippled by the time I had gotten off the city bus at Granada Centro and managed to hike to my hostel all the way from Plaza Nueva (absolutely crawling with international tourists) down to Plaza Puerto Real where I was staying.

From everywhere in the city, it is possible to view the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. This was quite refreshing whenever I paused to get my bearings.  It was extremely easy to tell the tourists from the locals by looking at the women.  The local women tend to wear sensible shoes  – flats or boots and they all, no matter what the body type, wear tight spandex pants.  If they wear shorts, they also wear tinted stockings which is rather odd but probably more aesthetic than bare legs which, along with the Oficina de Turismo map and camera, always mark the tourist.

I found it pleasant to get away from the tourist areas and stroll around the university and monastery.  There I found an excellent prefix three course lunch at an outdoor cafe in a lovely setting next to the botanical gardens for 8.50 euros.  It would have cost two or three times that in Plaza Nueva.

Granada is supposed to be one of the cheapest cities in Spain but, if you like a drink on the rocks in your room or in a pleasant area near your hotel or hostel, you are out of luck.  Even the sweet hostel concierge could only come up with  three mini ice cubes for me and no store sells ice.

Here’s the solution if you’ll be in the town for a few days.  Find a hole in the wall convenience store and buy a  fifth of your favorite hooch.  The price is about the same as in the U.S.  Next find a Burger King. They are the only chain that lets you get your own refills of soft drinks. Buy a “grande” soft  drink. Fill the cup with ice and discretely dump it into your Contigo stainless steel coffee mug, then refill the paper cup with ice and leave.

Back in your room, mix your drink in the Contigo thermos mug.  Don’t worry; tap water from the Sierra Nevada mountains is better than any bottled water.  The Sierra Nevada snow is why the Alhambra with all its aqueducts and fountains and gardens exists.  Now head for your favorite sunset people-watching spot and relax.   Viva Sierra Nevada mountains! Viva Burger King!

 

Malaga, Spain – the imagined and the real

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Somerset Maugham, like many educated English writers of the early twentieth century, was absolutely in love with Andalusia, Spain, so much so, that he reserved an unvisited city for his illusions – that was Malaga. The photograph above shows the Malaga of his illusions, but it is very much real.  The photograph below shows the Malaga he had been warned about and, it too, is very real and present today – a   bunch of basking Englishmen who have no love of Spain or her culture, just a love of good weather and helios.

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Andalusia is a state of mind, and nowhere have I seen it described better than in Maugham’s description of his imagined “Malaga”.

“The wisest thing is to leave unvisited in every country some place that one wants very much to see. In Italy I have never been to Siena, and in Andalusia I have taken pains to avoid Malaga. The guide-books tell me there is nothing whatever to see there; and according to them it is merely a prosperous sea-port with a good climate. But to me, who have never seen it, Malaga is something very different; it is the very cream of Andalusia, where every trait and characteristic is refined to perfect expression.

I imagine Malaga to be the most smiling town on the seaboard, and it lies along the shore ten times more charmingly than Cadiz. The houses are white, whiter than in Jerez; the patios are beautiful with oranges and palm-trees, and the dark green of the luxuriant foliage contrasts with the snowy walls. In Malaga the sky is always blue and the sun shines, but the narrow Arab streets are cool and shady. The passionate odours of Andalusia float in the air, the perfume of a myriad cigarettes and the fresh scent of fruit and flower. The blue sea lazily kisses the beach and fishing-boats bask on its bosom.

In Malaga, for me, there are dark churches, with massive, tall pillars; the light falls softly through the painted glass, regilding the golden woodwork, the angels and the saints and the bishops in their mitres. The air is heavy with incense, and women in mantillas kneel in the half-light, praying silently. Now and then I come across an old house with a fragment of Moorish work, reminding me that here again the Moors have left their mark.

And in Malaga, for me, the women are more lovely than in Seville; for their dark eyes glitter marvellously, and their lips, so red and soft, are ever trembling with a half-formed smile. They are more graceful than the daffodils, their hands are lovers’ sighs, and their voice is a caressing song.  The men are tall and slender, with strong, clear features and shining eyes, deep sunken in their sockets.

In Malaga, for me, life is a holiday in which there are no dullards and no bores; all the world is strong and young and full of health, and there is nothing to remind one of horrible things. Malaga, I know, is the most delightful place in Andalusia. Oh, how refreshing it is to get away from sober fact, but what a fool I should be ever to go there!”

To me Malaga will always be the place I first learned to use a European ATM which sucks up your debit card and asks you intimidating questions in Spanish, where I first received incorrect directions in Spanish but nevertheless was able to take public transportation to a major attraction (castillo gibralfaro)  and return and have a Turkish kebab lunch without ever using a word of English, where I learned to use a very strange key in an ancient entry gate to my hostel, where I learned the marvelous ritual of tapas and wine in the afternoon,  where I learned to sample regional wines straight from the barrel (3 six once glasses won’t even give you a buzz, but you will definitely need an insulin injection), and where I learned to blog on an iPad without benefit of wifi and after three large glasses of house wine (vino tinto de la casa.) The future looks bright.

Cruisin’

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A transatlantic crossing may seem romantic but hardly adventurous.  Still, since I was new to the art of cruising, the experience held a few surprises.  We left from Fort Lauderdale on April 14 just before dinner was served.  My first impression was the contrast between the gorgeous, opulent, ultra elegant almost Art Deco main dining room of the ship and the not-so-gorgeous international guests – the clothes, mannerisms, and unfortunate regional accents of every description.  But over the course of thirteen days, I discovered a different kind of beauty and learned a valuable lesson – the beauty is always there once you are open to it.  Every person I spoke with on the cruise was, without exception, intelligent, educated, well-traveled, humorous, energetic, and incredibly kind.

Almost everyone I met who spoke English was a former New Yorker, retiring in Florida and now part of a tour group.  The rest were Seattle natives traveling with a huge tour group based in Seattle.  By the end of the cruise I wanted to take all nine of my dinner table mates home and put them around my bed like beloved plush toys.  But now I don’t have a home or a bed, so I have tucked them away safe in my memory.

For the first seven days at sea, I was disappointed to find that the view from my balcony room was nonexistent – no stars, no birds, no whales, no ships, no islands.  But all that changed as we pulled out of the Azores and headed out to sea.  For a full hour at dusk I watched what looked like a gigantic green leviathan as twinkly lights began to fill the beaches towns.  Two days later I opened my eyes and found myself staring at Lisbon in all her glory as if I could reach out and touch the dome of the cathedral.  Cadiz did not appear to be interesting from the ship but when I went out to look for a wifi cafe and was joined by a charming gentleman whose wife had gone on a Seville tour, I was very glad I did.  The town was just lovely in every way as was the retired professor.  I wanted to move there starting now.  Gibraltar was a great surprise.  It was clear and sunny and cool and perfect with amazing views from the top of the rock.  I stared at the rock from my balcony for over an hour as we pulled out at sunset.  The rock is not overrated.

Another surprise – although I took various types of remedies for sea sickness, I didn’t need them and actually found the rocking and swaying  of the ship kind of calming.  The surprise came when I disembarked and finally lay down in my hostel room in Malaga, all safe and sound.  The room seemed to be lurching back and forth like a drunk and, since my brain knew it wasn’t possible, I didn’t find it a bit soothing and decided to take a walk instead of a very weird nap.

The port area of Malaga seems to be one gigantic shoparama.  I found the cruise guests’ mania for shopping and eating ice cream and pastries rather amusing.  I was pretty much immune from the former since I couldn’t possible carry one more thing and I spent all my cruise calories on extremely high quality protein hoping to grow some muscle after all those heavy workouts in the ship’s gym.

I honestly don’t think I have a prayer of continuing to travel like this unless I either get much stronger or start shedding some of the backpack weight.  It’s going to be interesting.  I take my hat off to all backpacking nomads, “Vaya con dios!”

Fear of Flying

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Tomorrow the adventure begins as I fly off to Fort Lauderdale to catch the first cruise to Malaga, Spain. That means it is now time to contemplate feelings about air travel.

My twin sister, Charlotte, has climbed to the summit of Kilamanjaro, explored in Antartica on two occasions, lived a year in Göttingen, stayed in Beijing as the guest of Chinese billionaires, and enjoyed a two month sojourn at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation and that’s just a sampling. Needless to say, she finds my fear of flying every bit as baffling and debilitating as I find her computer phobia. Actually it wasn’t so much fear of flying as fear of flying for extended periods, say for longer than an hour and fifteen minutes, the time it takes to speed read a cheap paperback. After that, I’ve had about enough and begin chewing through my seatbelt.

On two occasions Charlotte was able to convince me to fly to Paris for a couple of weeks. The first time I came prepared with two Xanax capsules from a bottle that the pharmacy had mistakenly given me instead of my son’s Ritalin prescription. To this day I don’t remember anything about the flight, but I know that I was absolutely clear-headed at the airport and on the long cab ride to our hotel. It was during that long cab ride that my sister regaled me with tales of my recent exploits under the influence. Among other things, I had chattered for an hour in French to a Versailles lawyer while bumming his cigarettes in the smoking section (this was 1993.) Of course I didn’t believe her until she suggested I check the pocket of my raincoat. I complied and pulled out a cream colored business card. The front displayed the office address (in Versailles) of one Paul Mercier, Avocat. On the back someone had handwritten a phone number (apparently his private line) and added in French an invitation to call him should I run into any difficulties. As we entered the outskirts of Paris, my sister was expounding, something about disinhibition being the key to unlocking obscure memories of high school French lessons. I wasn’t listening. I was too mortified at the fact that I had convinced some Frenchman that I was the kind of girl that was likely to “run into difficulties.”

The second time we flew to Paris was in 2007. This time, to spare my sister and myself embarrassment, I refrained from showing up fortified with so much as a 10mg valium. Instead, I calmed my nerves throughout the flight by drinking mini-bottle after mini-bottle of red wine, a quantity that would have made me rather affectionate at somebody’s wedding assuming it was at ground level. If anyone ever doubted the many stories of alcohol’s notorious effects at altitude and in ultra dry pressurized cabin conditions, I proved them all true that night. My tiny sister had to literally drag me through Charles de Gaulle airport and into a cab and up the stairs of the ancient L’Hotel Esmeralda (no elevator) right in front of the aged night clerk whose eyes betrayed his deep disappointment. As I told Charlotte when I recovered forty-eight hours later, “Well, that wasn’t a bit embarrassing for either of us!”

Clueless in Andalusia

Alhambra

So here’s the situation. You knew that the Alhambra was a big deal and uthat the moment you reached Granada, Spain you were going to catch the first bus and storm the place like Jean-François Champollion racing to Karnak in the middle of the night to read the hieroglyphs by torchlight. You figured that the grounds would be like the Acropolis in Athens and you could just roam around at will. You knew there would be entrance fees for the interior buildings, but, hell, the place was huge and it was only late April, hardly high season. Ha! When you checked the Internet before embarking on the trans-Atlantic cruise, you discovered that the Alhambra was completely booked for the entire three days you planned to be in Granada, both day and night tickets.

“Golly”, you thought, “going to Granada and not seeing the Alhambra would be like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal, or going to Siem Reap and not seeing Angkor Watt or going to Jordan and not seeing Petra, or going to Rome …” Well you get the idea. You mused about what it would be like to spend your first week in Europe in a Spanish jail because you were caught climbing over the Alhambra perimeter wall at night dressed like a cat burglar. You suddenly realized that the Spanish people are not dumb; they visit Granada when the gardens of the Alhambra are at their best, before all the hoards of tourists appear and the temperature is in triple Fahrenheit digits, in other words, in late April!

Then you entertained a sneaking suspicion that the lousy tour companies had bought huge blocks of tickets so they could add a day trip bus ride and charge a hundred euros for a two hour tour of the Alhambra and brief stop in old Granada for souvenirs before heading back to the Costa Del Sol with all its hideous British condos. Then a gleam of Mazda-inspired light appeared somewhere in the back of your brain. You, who had sworn to learn to travel completely on your own for at least the first six months, booked a bus tour from Malaga for your second day in Europe. This would solve two problems – getting a convenient ride into Granada from the cruise port and skirt the “no tickets” problem since it was prepaid by the tour company.

Then once on the grounds, you could ditch the tour and stay in the Alhambra until forcibly evicted when the night illuminations started. If you were lucky enough not to get evicted, it would just be you and the night and the music!

Anyway, that was the plan.

You aren’t really all that into “attractions.” Nevertheless you have learned a lesson about Europe in a vastly enlarged “high season”. You immediately went to the Internet and pre-ordered tickets for:

Germany
•Reichstag, Berlin

Great Britain
•Tower of London
•Jorvik Viking Center, York

Italy
•Vatican Museum/Sistine Chapel, Rome
•Borghese Gallery, Rome
•Uffizi Gallery, Florence
•Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Spain
•Casa Mila, Barcelona
•Picasso Museum, Barcelona
•Sagrada Família, Barcelona

This is it!

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There was a time when it was fashionable to get to know your sub-personalities, the idea being that, when they started acting out, you could speak to them sternly but lovingly like a wise parent and then they would settle down and not embarrass you at inconvenient times. Actually, I believe there were higher aims like “acceptance” and “integration” but “recognition” was definitely the starting point. My sister and I found this idea interesting enough to make a sort of game of it. For example, one of my sub-personalities was Petite Rose. P.R. never had a canopy bed or flouncy curtains or ruffled pillow shams. She acted out by possessing me at flea markets or holiday gift shops, forcing me to buy ridiculous objects that I later had to hide or stealthily unload on a neighbor’s daughter. But the subpersonality I remember the most because she’s so relevant now is Move-on-Molly. M.O.M. was never happier than watching a scene recede in her rearview mirror. The shocking thing was that the receding scene might include a long-beloved but ill cat, a wonderful friend whose interests had veered off in a depressing direction like T-ball and soccer mom, or a perfectly nice ex-boyfriend. No one could say Move-on-Molly clung to anything, certainly not the past. She was the Buddha’s own rough-and-tumble younger tomboy sister.

I can only report that M.O.M. has served me well over the past months and weeks. I never once drove by the house whose garden I’d slaved over for seven long years to see if the new owner was watering the Tangerine Beauty cross vine over the front garden arch. I gave the proceeds from the house sale to my sons and told them not to expect anything more in the way of tangibles from Mom because she was moving on! I gave up a great job without a second thought. I left all my old family photos with my ex-husband and gave my good books and jewelry to my sister.

Once I had figuratively dusted good old Austin, Texas and all that went with it from my hands and shoes, I congratulated myself on a job well done, the major job of letting go of the past.

The real challenge at this point was to cease “futuring.” It’s something that happens when you spend ten hours a day for years in cubicle land and “home” has become a synonym for “one repetitive task after another.” Life – real life – is always just ahead, never here, never now. Now! It’s where the rubber hits the road! Now! It’s the only place where life can be found. Now! What’s happening now is real! This is reality – drink it! Slam it down until you finally get it! Now! This is it!

The Adventuress Dresses for Success

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Although I found it in the “best-seller” section of the travel aisle in a Barnes and Nobel, I knew it wasn’t my kind of travel book.

I had opened at random a National Geographic Publication entitled The 10 Best of Everything and scanned the text under the heading Travel Safety and Useful Tips:

“Many savvy readers have their more treasured rings, bracelets, and necklaces duplicated with hand-cut laboratory-grown diamonds and precious stones. These gems, known as Russian brilliants are brighter and better cut than diamonds. Any cut stone can be manufactured and set in your design, giving peace of mind to the smart sophisticated traveler.”

“Travel Safety and Useful Tips?”
“Peace of mind?”
“Smart, sophisticated traveler?”
What???

One would think it would be cheaper and easier just to wear a cardboard sign inviting others to “Feel free to rob me, kidnap me, then, when no one produces the ransom money, kill me as slowly and painfully as you like.”

Now, back to my packing problem, I was well aware that more than six weeks of my fourteen months traveling ATW would be spent on cruise lines and one was, after all, expected to dress. I pictured myself apologizing to my table mates after the first night’s dinner toast stating that, since I was in the process of backpacking ATW, my glamour wardrobe might be limited to quick-dry capri pants and Crocs clogs. Then it occurred to me that I would have my light-weight slinky black Chico travel-wear top and bottoms. Even better, a glittery scarf or two and cubic zirconia costume jewelry would be relatively lightweight compared to an evening dress and high heels. This thought cheered me up considerably and I felt a little better about the “Russian brilliants” tip. Sometimes we’re just so quick to leap to judgment.

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As early as 1891 a few literary adventuresses were starting to get a fair shake. They might not be virginal but they were given their due for courage, resourcefulness, and brains, not to mention pure human decency and generosity of spirit. Of these Irene Adler of A Scandal in Bohemia and Mrs. Erlynne of Lady Windermere’s Fan come to mind.

Irene may have been "the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet” but it was her intelligence and character that made the greatest impression on Sherlock Holmes. Still, Irene would have had to be a genius indeed to win the mind and heart of the great detective had she gone about dressed like my Texas friends who show up for the opera looking like they couldn’t make up their minds whether to paint the house or drop by the beach. And, since you could land an Ultralight in their dressing rooms, they don't have the excuse of having to streamline. Wardrobe is a problem for the would-be adventuress traveling light. It is to address this very problem that I now unveil the “FMR”.

I won’t hold you in suspense any longer. “FMR” stands for “fabulous microfiber raincoat”. Yes, this baby can hide a multitude of sins and don’t for a second think you are limited to dreary taupe or khaki or gray. But even in a heavenly blue that matches your eyes, the FMR can’t do it all alone. This is the moment to go root around until you find that stunning Hermes or Ferragamo scarf your grandmother left you, the classic thirty-five inch silk square with all the gorgeous colors, the one you’ve never worn, preferring to schlep around in a forest green acrylic infinity scarf from Target. Now, with bright lipstick, a great haircut, your FMR cinched gracefully at the waist, Grandma’s impeccable scarf draped jauntily around your throat, and some twelve millimeter simulated pearl stud earrings, what does it matter if you’re wearing the same old tired Columbia travel pants and Clarks walking shoes? One important thing to note – if your FMR has a discreet but roomy hood that will cover your cheeks and forehead, you will on more than a few occasions have cause for gratitude. Even the lightest umbrella is more extra weight and bulk than you want in your backpack. What’s more, if the FMR is as thin as it should be, you can stuff all of it, including earrings and scarf into a one quart ziplock baggie. Yes, it is great to be living in the 21st century.

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Well that’s all well and good, but what if my travels have taken me where it’s a hundred degrees in the shade with no rain in sight?

Ah! Now you’re talking’! The adventuress is in her element in a Mediterranean climate. Let us fly to a watering hole on the Italian Riviera or the Red Sea or perhaps Africa’s cape.

I have four words for you – white gauze crinkle pants. Okay, a few more words – black one-piece swimsuit, and large, superfine, Indian cotton shawl/scarf/ruana preferably in a black and white print.

Obviously the white crinkle pants are worn over the swimsuit. The large scarf/ruana is worn like a shawl with one end thrown over the opposite shoulder to lightly cover your shoulders and upper arms (pin it if you have to.) Add dark sunglasses, the same twelve millimeter simulated pearl stud earrings that finished off the FMR look above, black flip flops (the same ones you bought to escape horrid diseases in budget accommodation showers), and you’re all set. You’ll be pleased to know that this outfit will also fit in a one quart ziplock.

Wait a minute, you ask, “What’s so classy about wearing black rubber flip flops?

Well, it has to do with a thing called “honesty of purpose”. That’s a high fallutin’ term for “it’s their appropriate environment”. Rubber flip flops were not designed to wear to the mall or the office; they were designed to wear at the beach and will never look wrong there. Enough said.

I would, however, like to mention the fact that the washable superfine, Indian cotton shawl/scarf/ruana can do extra duty as a skirt, sarong, pareo, picnic cloth, pillow case, or escape rope.

Now I know you are going to insist on throwing away good money on a floppy straw hat and huge straw tote bag and I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. I won’t even insist that they be black and white. This is your movie and if you want your hat and tote to match your shell pink lipstick or your seagreen eyes, it’s your affair. I, for one, gave up instant gratification years ago in favor of instant regretification, said “instant” occurring when I found out I could have bought the exact same black straw hat and black and white striped tote at Walmart for one-fifth what I paid at the boutique on the beach. My point is, if you are doing an ATW, you’re going to have to ditch this stuff at some point so you might as well not go too crazy. But if you do, it’s not a problem. We adventuresses just chalk it up to a coup de coeur, the thing we couldn’t resist, since we always live in the moment.