Vamos España 3 of 3: The Pink Ranger (Barcelona)

Vamos España 3 of 3: The Pink Ranger (Barcelona)

Spain is the countrified equivalent of the Power Rangers.

Like them, Spain is a collection of autonomous regions with their own personalities, strengths, abilities, cultural flavour, symbols, history and, in some cases, official language. The emphasis here is on the word “autonomy,” in that each autonomous region governs itself, having their own parliament and their own set of laws, called Statutes of Autonomy. Put all these autonomous regions together, and you get Spain. The regions are the Power Rangers and the combination of their Zords (Mastodon! Pterodactyl!) make Spain a MegaZord. Yes, my childhood was lovely, thank you.

In non-crazy, non-early ’90s teen-speak, if the European Union is an amalgamation of countries, Spain is its microcosm. It must be very like trying to control a team of wild horses, with each one straining at the bit to go whichever way they want to go. Imagine those unique, multi-faceted autonomous regions uniting to make one great nation and country under God. However convoluted it may sound, these crazy Spaniards make it work.

It’s true that each region has its own distinctive character and taste – even smell. Having spent days exploring the haughty grandeur of Madrid, and the graceful beauty of Granada, arriving in Barcelona was a splash of cold water. It was like stepping into a time machine and being thrown into a completely different era. If Madrid is the Red Ranger (leader, big brother, stoic and strong) and Granada the White Ranger (formerly bad, now good, always and forever the hottest), Barcelona would be the Pink Ranger.

I thought I knew what grand was, having seen the palaces and gardens of Madrid, and the imposing citadel of the Alhambra. Barcelona took the word grand, and shot it into the stratosphere. It’s huge. Its roads are wide and its buildings take up so much space, it makes Madrid seem almost cramped by comparison.

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Barcelona’s urban sprawl, as seen from the top of Montjuïc on an overcast day
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The Parc du Montjuïc

The jewel of the autonomous region of Catalonia, the city moves to the beat of its own drum. Barcelona is deceptively young. It was a Roman city in the Middle Ages, so it isn’t really young at all, it just seems to have drunk from the Fountain of Youth somehow. It’s colourful, and bright, and fast-paced, and weird, and eclectic and you can feel its sheer, unbridled joy and delight in just being different. It seems to be a city that hasn’t forgotten the glories of the past, but is busy making sure it stays relevant and on the cusp.

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Casa Battlló

That modern feel is fitting, because its most famous son was at the forefront of Catalan Modernisme – a cultural revival of what it meant to be Catalan. Antoni Gaudi was the architect of much that would give Barcelona its new international identity. His most famous masterwork, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia is, of all the truly wonderful landmarks of Barcelona, the one whose identity is irrevocably bound up in that of the city. Just as huge, just as grand, just as unbridled as the spirit of Barcelona itself, it’s an architectural marvel. And, like Barcelona, it’s not yet done (they broke ground in 1882!) . Some wonder if it ever will be.  Blog Sagrada Familia, its official architecture blog, is a great source of information, and a way better resource than listening to a travel guide drone on and on!

I first saw The Sagrada Familia at night. There was no rhyme or reason to the timing; the bestie and I had met up for an ultimately underwhelming dinner in the Gothic Quarter, walked to the Arc de Triomf, and, not ready for the night to end, realized the church was in the general direction of wherever we were headed (nowhere – sometimes, being aimless is fun), and decided to go and see it for ourselves.

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Sagrada Familia: Passion Façade (Night)

The Sagrada, as envisioned by Gaudi, has three facades: Passion, Nativity, and Glory. Of the three, it’s only Glory that’s still in the beginning stages of construction; the Nativity was the first to be completed, while the Passion was completed in 2018 (it took 64 years). I knew none of this when we first saw it that evening; I expected a convoluted construction site and got slapped in the face with the sheer ambition and scale of Gaudi’s genius instead. I just knew I had to see it in the full light of day.

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Sagrada Familia: Passion Façade (Day)

Day or night, the Sagrada is a marvel. Not everyone is fortunate to be gifted with the ability to bring the fruits of a fertile imagination to life. We spent a good half an hour staring up at the Passion facade, completely flabbergasted. Bowled over. Thrown for a loop. Gobsmacked. Words fail. The attention to detail is ridiculous. It’s stark and forbidding, a message of suffering and pain, as Gaudi intended it to memorialize the suffering of Christ in his last days. It is said that he decided to completed the Nativity facade first because he thought the Passion might render anyone who viewed it averse to continuing construction.

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Sagrada Familia: Nativity Façade (Day) – time has weathered this side of the basilica, and it is a lot more colourful than it looks

I don’t think I took as much photos as I thought I had. A lot of what I did get to take doesn’t come close to what it actually does look like in real life, which made it a bit frustrating. To be fair, there’s only so much the camera on one’s smartphone can do, and I admittedly am not the best at finding great angles (I am also generally #nofilter because I am lazy), but mostly it was because I was too busy gawking. Sometimes trying to capture a moment ruins it, and it’s best to just stand there and take it in. And that’s not just true for the Sagrada, it’s true for the rest of the city, and for the whole of this last great adventure of the year.

There is more to Barcelona of course, than Gaudi. I had a lot of fun hopping on and off public transportation, feeling like a local. The most affordable way to see a city in the shortest amount of time is to take public transit, and Barcelona has a lot to be proud of when it comes to that. I respect cities with efficient transit (if only because mine can be oh so frustrating sometimes), and it’s very easy to get around in Barcelona. The food was quite good, too.  It’s a very metropolitan city, and at first I didn’t feel quite as attached to it as one would like, but that was because I had left my heart in Granada.

Just like the Power Rangers, we all had a favourite, and  Granada (the White Ranger) was mine. There was so much of it I didn’t get to see, and so much more to explore. If I ever do manage to go back to Spain, it will be to Granada – and Andalusia – I will return. This time, Le Hubs has said he’ll come along, so that’ll be a wholly different experience!

Vamos España 2 of 3: The Princess and the Pomegranate (Granada)

Vamos España 2 of 3: The Princess and the Pomegranate (Granada)

There was crying in Granada when the sun was going down
Some calling on the Trinity, some calling on Mahoun;
Here passed away the Koran – therein, the cross was borne
And here was heard the Christian bell, and there, the Moorish horn.

Te Deum laudamus! was up the Alcala sung
Down from the Alhambra’s minarets were all the crescents flung
The arms thereon of Aragon, they with Castile’s display;
One king comes in in triumph, one, weeping, goes away.

– John Gibson Lockhart, The Flight From Granada (translation from an old Moorish ballad)

So goes Catalina, a young infanta of Spain, who is recounting the events of her parent’s triumph to her new husband, an enraptured Arthur, Prince of Wales. They are in a drafty castle in Ludlow in the dead of winter, and Arthur has requested that she tell him a story.

It’s one of many dreamy, arresting passages in The Constant Princess, Philippa Gregory’s fictional re-imagining of the early life of Katherine of Aragon – as Catalina would eventually come to be known – the first and most accomplished of all the six wives of Henry VIII. The fall of Granada is a story worth telling, made all the more dramatic because it’s true. In the last days of the Spanish Reconquista, the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon pushed out the last of the ruling Moors in the south of Spain, unifying the entire peninsula and establishing Granada as the seat of their power, taking up residence in the great citadel of the Alhambra. The palaces within the fortress of the Alhambra is where Catalina spent her childhood, and the book became the main inspiration for this trip, so much so that I brought it with me!

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What a nerd, lol

Have you ever had a fleeting dream, where you think to yourself that someday, given the chance, you’ll go and do something, or see something, or accomplish something, all the while telling yourself  it’s probably never going to happen? The Alhambra was one of those dreams for me. At the time I didn’t quite know how that dream could possibly come true, if it ever even would, and so I tucked it away and out of sight like we do so many of our private aspirations.

Walking up the road on the hill that leads to the citadel (I would’ve bused, but something was going down with Granada’s buses that morning, and I really really couldn’t afford to be late – they only let you visit the Nasrid Palaces within the complex at a particular time), each time I paused for a minute to try and catch my breath – it is a very high hill – I felt like pinching myself, because it almost didn’t feel real. I was finally, finally going to see a place I had only read about, a place that lived in my imagination, filtered through the lens of a Philippa Gregory novel. Was it real? Was it going to be as gorgeous as Catalina had described? Or would I be disappointed? Would it turn out to be less than what my fevered brain had conjured?

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It’s forbidding, isn’t it? The Gate of the Pomegranates is a high stone gateway  that looms over the original road into the fortress (it now has about two other access points), invoking visions of horses clattering through its arches, medieval knights astride, pennants blowing proudly in the breeze. The sound of water begins almost immediately, two streams flow on either side of the path, and the air is fresh and clean, the sunlight filtered by the leaves of the many trees within the complex, all leading up to the Door of Justice, the original entrance to the Alhambra.

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Not doing justice to the Door of Justice

In retrospect, it was a good thing busing didn’t work out, because getting into the Alhambra by the Door of Justice is the fastest way to skip the queue (do not do this if you do not have a pre-purchased ticket with a QR code).  The road starts at the foot of the hill, at the Plaza de Santa Ana.  A bus would’ve taken me to the new, contemporary entrance, and I would’ve missed the walk through a picturesque, tree-lined pathway.

The pomegranate is the heraldic symbol of Granada, and the origin of its name (Spanish: granita).  It symbolizes many things, chief of them prosperity and fertility. When Catalina went to England, she adopted the pomegranate as her symbol too. It’s a fitting symbol for the Alhambra as well. Alhambra means “the red one”, and like the fruit, it is red on the outside and deceivingly plain. Crack a pomegranate open and a wealth of jewel-like seeds is revealed; similarly, enter the Alhambra and a priceless work of art reveals itself to the eye.

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Nowhere is this beauty more prevalent than in the Nasrid Palaces, the residential part of the complex, where the Sultans and Sultanas of the Nasrid Dynasty lived.

The palace is absolutely breathtaking, made even more so because all of its interior is made by hand. Carved and shaped by master masons of the era, lines of Arabic inscriptions decorate walls of stucco, interspersed with flowers and botanical motifs.  Water plays a large role in the palace. There are fountains and reflecting pools all throughout and the sound of running water is like music in the background. Trees heavy with oranges and pomegranates abound, and I really really wish the photos I took could do justice to it all, because they don’t come close to showing how stunning the palace is at all.

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The Palacio de Generalife, as seen from the Nasrid Complex

The Moors added to the complex as they went, and the summer palace of the Generalife (pr. He-ne-ra-‘li-fe) was one such addition. It was where they went to escape the heat during the hot summers, and is a pleasure garden that in its own way is as breathtaking as the Nasrid palace.  There is the same intricate plasterwork, although not at the same dizzying scale, and reflecting pools and fountains abound. It’s easy to forget your cares in the Generalife, and who could blame you?

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In the gardens of the Generalife

When Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler in Spain, left the Alhambra for the last time after surrendering it to Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, he wept. His mother, who was with him at the time, was said to say “You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” Imagine his pain (and her rage) at being forced to leave a home designed to be utter paradise on earth.

For myself, I didn’t quite weep when I left it, but I understood the urge to. I did sigh, happy to have enjoyed it for a day (you can easily spend the better part of a day there – I didn’t even include photos of the Alcazaba and the palace of Charles V), and regret at having to leave. Then I began the walk downhill, back to the city centre, pausing every now and then – it is a very steep incline, and if the walk up is hell on your thighs, the walk down is hell on your knees!

Vamos España 1 of 3: The Bear and the Strawberry Tree (Madrid)

Vamos España 1 of 3: The Bear and the Strawberry Tree (Madrid)

“A strawberry tree? Preposterous!” I thought, having never heard of one before. The strawberries I am familiar with grow on vines in cool climates, hugging the mountaintops of Baguio City. So when I learned that Madrid’s coat of arms features a bear rearing up to prise strawberries off a tree, I was intrigued.

Other than the name, it turns out the strawberry tree and the common strawberry as we know it are completely unrelated. Part of the evergreen family, the strawberry tree is found in the Mediterranean and parts of Western Europe and is favoured by bears and other animals for its fragrant and luscious fruit, which look like spiky little lychees. One particularly interesting tidbit is, if left to ripen on the branch, its fruits start to ferment. This can result in some very drunk bears, which is apt because it is entirely possible (and ridiculously easy) for a person to get drunk in Madrid, and not just on alcohol.

Like meticulously aged rum, Madrid is intoxicating. It’s old, a Miss Havisham kind of old, an aging but elegant aunt draped in all her finery, surrounded by art and the mementoes of the past, smelling of cigarettes*, helpless against the slow march of time, yet glorious despite its slow decay.

And it’s grand. Boy, is it grand. It’s a sprawling city filled with ostentatious town plazas, wide avenidas,large rotundas and sprawling parks and gardens; with daunting castles and baroque aristocratic homes that reflect the power and pride of the Habsburg – and, later, the Bourbon – dynasty, and the elevation of Spain in its prime.

It was, of course, virtually impossible for me to cover all of Madrid in two days, which is all the time I had allotted for this most grand of cities. So I did what I could, focusing on the Centro district, which houses the older parts of the city. Although Madrid is now very much a modern city, with infrastructure befitting the nation’s capital and the centre of Spanish commerce, a very impressive number of its historical neighbourhoods and landmarks still remain for us to appreciate.

Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid)
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The Palacio as seen from the Jardines de Sabatini

Can you say you’ve been to Madrid if you haven’t been to the Royal Palace? It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. With over three thousand rooms, it is the largest functioning royal residence in Europe, and dwarfs Buckingham Palace in size. I didn’t bother booking a visit inside, because I knew it would take at least a day to fully appreciate its grandeur.

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Palacio de Cristal, Buen Retiro Gardens
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Part of the Monument to Alfonso XII the Peacemaker, Buen Retiro Gardens

I was fortunate to get to the Buen Retiro Gardens just before sundown, which gave it an almost ethereal quality. If you’re short on time, it’s important to know which parts of the park to visit before visiting, because it is quite huge. Not Central Park huge, but still, huge. I went primarily for the Crystal Palace, built for the Philippine Exposition of 1887, and by happy chance stumbled onto the monument to Alfonso XII just as the sun was about to set. Bathed in the shadows of dusk and the last gasp of a setting sun, it was a delight.

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One of Madrid’s many Las Meninas sculptures. This one sits outside the Temple of Debod
Secret Nun Cookies!

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If you ever do find yourself in Madrid, do go for the not-so-secret secret nun cookies. Baked by the cloistered sisters of the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, getting your hands on these can be quite an adventure. It involves navigating a few confusing back streets, finding the right door, and knowing what to ask for – a particularly difficult feat since the nuns of this monastery do not interact with the outside world. We lucked out when we followed this one guy who seemed to be creating his own documentary, because he knew how to speak Spanish and helped with the buying process (that’s him in the .gif!). When ordering the cookies, one has to place the money in a sort of blocked out lazy susan that spins, without you seeing the person giving you the order. When it spins back around, your money is gone, replaced by cookies, and then it spins one more time (if needed) to give you your change. It feels deliciously illicit. Tom of Boingboing has a great how-to guide, if you ever want to undertake it yourself.

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The queue for the El Gordo lottery

The hotel I stayed at was just off the Gran Via near the Puerta del Sol, just up the street from the Doña Manolita lottery. The line-up was insane. Insane. It’s the only word I can use to describe it, the photo doesn’t even show half of the line-up, which stretched around the block. I didn’t know why this little lottery place was so hot, people were willing to stand in the rain and cold just to get themselves a ticket, but this piece on The Local explained it all. It’s considered a Spanish tradition to take part in the El Gordo (The Fat One) Lottery come Christmastime, and Doña Manolita’s branch is famous for selling tickets that eventually turn out to be the winning ones!

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The colossal Terminal 4 of the Madrid Barajas Airport  makes you feel like you’re underwater

I told the bestie I was treating this trip as an all-you-can-eat buffet, attempting to absorb as much of Spain as I could in a very limited amount of time. I know, I know. It’s an exercise in futility, because there is so much of it to absorb and there was no way a week would enough to try to hold all of it in. But I tried, anyway. And I don’t regret it. In Madrid, I felt like that bear in their coat of arms. I knew the strawberry tree held an immense amount of riches, and was only able to enjoy a few. But that is how it sometimes is, and I am thankful I got to enjoy it at all.

 

* not kidding about the cigarettes/cigarillos/cigars – it took me a few days to get used to how prevalent smoking is in Spain (I later found out 1 in 3 people smoke). Madrid made my head spin, and not always in a good way!

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain

I lost a couple of drafts I’d already been working on while I was away on my last big adventure of the year, which sort of sucks. I like writing in the heat of the moment, overwhelmed by all the sounds, tastes and textures, so much so that it’s almost a relief to get it all out, but now I’ll have to start from the beginning, after another numbing work week has already passed me by, to try and remember what my week in Spain was like.

Spain feels like a dream now. A hazy, wonderful dream spent exploring twisting, secretive alleyways, grand palacios and beautiful, manicured jardins dotted with marble statuaries of king and queens come and gone; of carefully watching my sneaker-shod steps on rain-slicked stone mosaics in an ancient summer palace where sultanas once danced and sang, accompanied by the soothing melody of trickling water; of staring up, aghast and bowled over by the imagination of a single, solitary artist, his work an explosion of creativity so immense, at least three generations of builders have passed and still his work is incomplete.  A lovely adventure punctuated by dipping spongy, delectable soletillas (ladyfingers) into almost mythical cups of the richest, velvetiest hot chocolate you can imagine; of washing down delectable bites of seafood and chorizo with tinto de verano, which is like sangria, only better; of conversing in broken Spanish and giggling at the antics of very handsome (and very friendly) waiters at a crowded tapas bar, always with their eye on you, attentive to your slightest need, all naughty winks and nods of approval at your obvious enjoyment of what their establishment has to offer.  It’s only been a few days, but that’s what it feels like. A dream. Like waking up and wondering if all that really happened.

So here I am, buried in photographs of memories made within the span of a mere seven days, trying to recapture the magic of what it was like to see the great kingdom and former empire of España, taking stock of all the things I loved and the things I couldn’t abide.

So much of Spain remains in the lifeblood of the Philippines, in our language and our food, our interactions and instinctive social cues, our beliefs and our way of community. As a country whose influence has impacted so much of my homeland, even its name, Spain has always been on my list of dream places to visit, if only to see and experience life in a land that colonized, shaped, influenced and yes, to a certain extent, terrorized, my home for centuries. It’s also home to forty-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, if chasing World Heritage Sites is your thing. It’s second only to China and Italy, tied at fifty-five. As such, it definitely is well worth your while to give it a visit.

In Which I Exhort You to Bring Imodium Wherever You Go

In Which I Exhort You to Bring Imodium Wherever You Go

I thought I’d be writing as much about my visit to Amsterdam and Antwerp as much as I did with Cuba earlier this year. It turns out I was wrong with a capital W… make that all-caps WRONG because most of my time was spent pounding the pavement and then coming back to the hotel suite in the evening all exhausted and fit for nothing but watching the US Open on Eurosport1. I know, it sounds horrible doesn’t it? Maybe if I’d been younger, I’d have spent more time partying my ass off and swilling jenever into the wee hours of the morning even if I don’t really drink all that much, because who cares about cable when you have the invincible power of youth brimming in your veins?

So now here I am on the flight back, winging my way across the Atlantic. It’s the first chance I’ve had to sit back and really try and remember what the trip was like. I am currently aided by the “Easy Listening” genre offered by the inflight entertainment. Right now, it’s Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer”. Lol. I haven’t heard this song in years. It’s something my mother used to play on her guitar, back when she had one.

Anyway.

I was going to write about my Amsterdam and Antwerp experience, but decided to share the perils of travelling without Imodium instead. Yes. I lived through some people’s worst nightmare. And I didn’t just live it any old place.  I lived it on Icelandair Flight 506, from Keflavik to Amsterdam.

I had felt all girl-scout confident and prepared on the way, because I felt I had all the necessaries for an emergency. Including Imodium. Imodium, for the benefit of the ones unfamiliar with the name, is a brand name of generic loperamide and is used to control the symptoms of diarrhea. I had checked it in my luggage, because I wasn’t anticipating anything. But that’s betrayal for you. It just comes out of nowhere. It’s almost always unexpected. I have no idea what I ate. Whatever it was, my traitorous stomach just decided to rebel.

I told myself I could hold it until we landed in Schiphol International. You know how sometimes you think it’s just a small rumble, a bit of a fart, it’ll sort itself out? There we were, seatbelt sign on, everyone strapped in our seats, about half an hour away from actually landing on the tarmac when my stomach decided it had had enough. Faced with the reality of being in a metal tube filled with recycled air and potentially asphyxiating everyone on board, I scrambled up and over Le Hubs, who was trying in vain to get me to stay in my seat, and headed for one of the bathrooms, which was locked, because they lock the doors of the lavatories before landing.

“We’re landing in fifteen minutes!” said the flight attendant who tried to get me to go back to my seat. “This is an emergency,” I hissed. There must’ve been a really feral look in my eye, or maybe the kind of wild desperation that drives people to do unspeakable things, because she didn’t argue any further with me.

Is there anything worse than everyone knowing you’re about to go into the shitter when you know it isn’t going to be a quiet session? Because I would say yes. It is a thousand times worse when said shitter is an airplane lavatory at the front of the plane with an attendant strapped to her seat beside it because the plane is supposed to be going down from a higher altitude to land. Add in you sitting there trying to go as discreetly as possible but knowing it’s pointless  because you’ve been holding everything in so long it’s too late to be coy about setting your large intestine free, turbulence shaking you around as you sit there  in a cold sweat, wondering if your stomach is done with you and if it’s safe to come out,  then someone starts banging on the door saying the plane can’t land if you’re still in there doing god knows what so you hurriedly clean yourself up and emerge trying to look like it’s just another day in Normal Town. And then you go back to your seat to face a husband who is as mortified as you are and avoid eye contact with everyone and everything for the next few minutes as the plane finally touches down and you’re just praying to God no one recognizes you or even remembers you on the baggage carrel.

(Which, to my relief, no one seemed to. At least that’s what I like to think.)

On my first plane ride with a group of other people I worked with on the school yearbook,  I remember one girl making sure she took an Imodium before we started off. I asked her what it was for and she said she just wanted to make sure nothing untoward would happen on the way. I thought it was kind of silly to willingly constipate yourself when your stomach was fine, but it turns out she was right in the end. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong. I still don’t think it’s a good idea to take Imodium when there’s nothing wrong with me, but from this day forth, I vow never to be without it at all times.

I’m in the TransPacific Literary Project!

I’m in the TransPacific Literary Project!

I’d been sitting on this until everything was finalized, and today’s the day! My essay, “Tiangge” is the first entry of the TransPacific Literary Project’s Trans:Act Folio, and I couldn’t be happier!

I wrote the bones of this piece four years ago, around four in the afternoon. It just poured out, fuelled by a haze of nostalgia and homesickness. Immigrants are transplants who carry pieces of their homeland with them no matter where they may be, and sometimes I miss the part of myself that I had to leave behind.

This wasn’t something I ever thought I would share, but I am glad I did. The challenge was to seamlessly incorporate the native language of transaction into the piece, and I was fortunate to have an absolute marvel of an editrix who patiently helped me wrestle it into the shape it eventually ended up taking. People never believe me when I say I’m a sentimental little thing, but seeing my work published is always a surreal experience, and I’m really excited to be able to share my essay with you now!


Arroz a la Cubana: Sorta Kinda Havana Good Time

Avoiding the sunshine. I’m laughing at my past self circa a day ago gloating about staying out in the sunshine, because why then did I sign up for a day tour of Havana, which meant a full eight hours in such heat, I came home with a massive migraine?

So there I was, with a gang of other happy, sunburned retirees headed to Havana. I booked a guided tour for a day trip to Cuba’s famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) capital, just to see what it would be like. Because Varadero is two hours away, I didn’t want to chance going into the capital alone on buses I was unfamiliar with. My imagination, always fertile and ready to go for the worst case scenario, was in overdrive, waiting for the guardia civil, the policia, the men in uniform come to drag me away, lock me up and attach electrodes to my tender parts for every minor infraction, because well, communism (and I am an ignoramus) so I was on my best behaviour.

Here’s what I found:

1. There are barely any Asians in Cuba.

2. About 80% of everyone visiting is white, and the locals automatically assume – not mistakenly – that they are Canadian. (Cuba is to Canada what Boracay is to the Philippines.)

3. I don’t think I’m cut out for guided tours after all.

It was a tour designed to check all the boxes, and we were led from tourist spot to tourist spot to a shop for rum and cigars, kind of like kids in kindergarten on a field trip. I’m used to planning my own itinerary ahead of time, and I like to try and go where the locals go and poke around, so if that is your thing, don’t do a guided tour. I didn’t get to take a lot of good pictures because we passed quite a few sights (El Capitolio, Morro Castle, etc) while still on the tour bus and didn’t have the time to take quality shots. I was also disappointed because I thought we would have some time to get into museums and browse, not just stand outside buildings while the guide drones on about how Hemingway lived in this hotel and how Hemingway drank at this bar. Eh. Yay? It really is my fault, I should have done a lot more research  but I only have myself to blame for the last minute decision to go.

The Havana I envisioned was a city that comes alive in the evening, strung about with fairy lights, air filled with salsa music, laughter, the chatter of a people letting loose and stumbling out of nightclubs. The Havana we saw was Old Havana, bleached by an unrelenting sun, occupied mostly by tourists goggling at the state of disrepair. By day, the decay of the city is revealed, its buildings crumbling, paint flaking off of edifices built in the 20’s, mold and water stains caked on like a woman who had staggered to bed after a night of debauchery, fallen asleep without removing her makeup and woke up in the bright light of day. Many of the buildings are gutted with only their facades left intact, and many are in an ongoing state of construction that seems to have been undertaken with gusto but half-heartedly left in disrepair when time, money, or energy ran out.

And it’s quiet. It felt like the only people out were the tourists. We drove through one of the neighbourhoods on the way to having lunch and I wondered where the locals were, because I didn’t see very many of them on the streets. Where were the street vendors? The food carts? The hustle and bustle of the everyday? Nowhere. Havana is clean, almost unnaturally so, and the quiet juxtaposed with all the buildings with paint peeling off is almost eerie.

I am glad that the government of Cuba took steps to preserve and restore many of the buildings in the heart of Old Havana. My favourites are the palaces of stone built by the Spanish, some as far back as the 1700’s, their cathedrals and seawalls imposing and engineered to last. Unlike the buildings that flourished in the early 20’s, theirs don’t need paint, only a thorough scrubbing. Through some mysterious alchemy the Spanish made buildings that stood the test of time. It’s their architecture that gives Havana a sort of quiet, solid strength, and contributes to so much of the city’s character. I felt awed by their achievement, and thankful at being able to witness it. Incidentally, Old Havana is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in architecture and history. Maybe just don’t do a guided tour. You’ll have a lot more fun discovering places all by your lonesome!