El transporte

My coworker had invited me over to her parents’ house for lunch, and I was excited to meet her siblings and speak in Spanish all afternoon. I took the bus to her hometown and she picked me up at the station in her car. Her younger brother was in the passenger seat, and after introductions, we began chatting about – what else – life in Spain versus life in America. “Do you have a car at home, Sarah?” he asked me. “Yes,” I responded, “right now my parents are taking care of it.” “What kind of car is it? How big is it?” he asked. “Well, just average size I guess . . . about the size of this car, actually.” He turned around in his seat to stare at me, shocked. “What??? That’s all???” Confused, I qualified my statement, “Yeah, well, I’m single and I don’t have any kids, or pets, or any expansive hobbies . . . I don’t need a big car. Why are you staring at me like that?” I finished defensively. “I thought everyone in America had big cars, and they drove them everywhere, even across the street to the store, because gas prices there are so cheap that they don’t have to worry about having a car with good gas mileage.”


Foreign countries can be full of surprises. Even though you’re expecting it to be completely different, it’s always a revelation to discover that something that you took for granted as a universal occurrence – Driver’s Ed at 15 or 16 years of age, getting a car for your birthday or scrimping and saving to buy your first ever car, the thrill of independence when you can drive to school for the first time as a senior – turned out to be an experience particular to your time and location. Basic transportation, getting to and fro, is a whole different kettle of fish in most other countries.

In Mexico, buses were the most common way to get from here to there. When I was there (in 2005), a city bus trip was about 30 cents, which you gave to the bus driver as you got on. There were no bus stops – people just congregated on the sidewalk to flag down the bus as it passed by, and when you wanted to get off, you pushed the stop button or just shouted at the driver. Destinations were posted on the windshield. If there were set routes or times, I didn’t know them. Longer distances were also covered by bus, but by a much more sophisticated fleet of buses. These were Greyhound-type charter buses with bathrooms and air conditioning. They had fixed schedules and were more expensive (to the tune of $10, mind). You got an assigned seat, a place to put your luggage, and even juice and a snack as you boarded. In a country as small as Mexico, flying was reserved for international travel.

In Guatemala, city buses were very similar in terms of price and functioning, but city-to-city travel was often accomplished via “chicken bus”. Chicken buses are old American school buses which have gone to Central America to die. Some of them still have the lettering on the side stating to which county they used to belong; in Guatemala City I saw a bus from James City, Virginia, not far from where I lived at the time. Like local city buses, chicken buses that go from city to city are cheap and have no set schedule or route. You congregate on the side of the road and flag down a bus. Some chicken buses have destinations posted on the front windshield, and some are just painted a certain color to indicate the destination. Occasionally this painting will be in the pattern of the traditional clothing from the area where the bus is going. This makes it easy to tell a buses’ destination if you cannot read. Chicken buses also have the advantage of luggage storage – on the top of the bus. A porter puts your stuff up there, and when you advise the driver that you want to get off, the porter climbs out the window and onto the top of the bus while it is motion to find your bag. The bus stops, you get off, and the porter throws down your belongings, and off they go again. Flying again is reserved for international travel.

In Spain, city buses were much more tightly scheduled, often with stops and times available on the Internet. They were also more expensive, similar to city bus fares in America, so anywhere from 1 to 2 euros. Many bigger cities also had subways or light rails. Long distance buses similar to those used in Mexico were very popular, as were short-distance trains. There’s even a high speed line that goes from west to east, taking you from Sevilla to Barcelona in no time. Although the country is actually smaller than Mexico, cheap flights a la RyanAir were common to get from the south to the north, for example. And although, as my opening anecdote suggests, cars in Spain tended to be smaller, it was much more common for people to have cars, although I met many adults who had never even taken a driver’s ed course.

In Ecuador, especially in Quito, transportation is a problem. There are so many people in such a small space that if everyone had and drove cars, like in Spain, no one would be able to get anywhere. So Quito has come up with 2 very interesting solutions – pico y placa, and the bus lines. Pico y Placa is the name of a program that regulates who can drive when. “Pico” is short for “la hora pico”, which is rush hour. “Placa” is your license plate. So, depending on your license plate number, you are assigned a day of the week in which you cannot drive your car during rush hours. The idea is to cut down on the number of cars on the road. There are of course a lot of city buses in Quito, but they also have 3 bus lines that have dedicated lanes in the middle of the principal avenues. For example, the Ecovía line runs down the middle of the Avenida 6 de Diciembre, and no other cars or buses can drive in those lanes, which are separated from the rest of the road by curbs. There are little islands in the middle of the lanes at each stop, which you access by putting a quarter into the turnstile. City to city buses follow the Mexico/Spain model, and flights are used for international travel or to get to the Galapagos.


I can’t decide whether I prefer the transportation culture here in the US or that of Spain or Ecuador. It was certainly nice to spend an entire year not filling my car up with gas while I bused my way around the Iberian Peninsula. But I also like the freedom of my car. Thoughts?


La Torre del Tweet

I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of monuments and historic places. I’ve been to quite a few of them after all, being somewhat of a history buff. But I recently became fascinated by the ways in which historic sites and monuments can tell us some startling truths about the identity and culture of a people in our current times. Even though we as tourists go to a monument to “look at history”, the place we are visiting is never exactly like the original site, even taking into account the normal process of decay. We don’t like to admit this fact – visitors tend to think of historic places as frozen in time somewhat. That is, this place that we are visiting, it is exactly what and how the original builders meant it to be, and any restorations are in the spirit of the original construction. When we encounter evidence to the contrary it’s a bit jarring; for example, my sister came to visit me in my town here in the US and during our tour of the historic district, we learned that many of the houses and buildings had been moved from their original sites, which left us with a vague sense of disappointment. We wanted to see THE early American town, after all, not a reconstructed replica. Visitors to other historical sites are no different. When you visit Guernica, in the Basque Country of Spain, you want to see the actual, original Tree of Guernica, which no longer exists, by the way. The original tree is long since dead, and the second tree is a trunk sitting in a little gazebo. The third and current tree which is planted behind the house of government is genetically related to the Tree of Guernica . . . but it is a modern version by necessity. When you visit Toledo, you want to see the original Cristo de la Luz Mosque, although the name alone should tell you that the site did not remain in stasis. The building is still there, but the site was quickly appropriated for use as a church after the Reconquest.

Even the existence of the sites themselves reveal a modern bias and show what is currently important to a country and a culture. The things we save are the things we think are important enough TO save, after all. What we do with photographs and scrapbooks in our personal lives, countries do with their monuments, showcasing the important events of their histories. To take up the Guernica/Toledo example again, in Guernica my tourist map showed me which buildings were original and thus had survived the Civil War bombing, and which were reconstructed. It also highlighted the Basque government offices and a museum of Basque history. Toledo’s map, apart from being full of museums, pointed out the current or previous location of every synagogue and mosque within the old city walls. Now, are there mosques in the Basque Country? Definitely. Synagogues? Yes, although on the French side. Did Toledo suffer damage in the Civil War? Yup. But the focal point of each area’s history, the central identity of each town, is reflected in the sites that Guernica and Toledo found historically important.

The point is, although most tourists go to a site to learn about what is past, historic sites are not static and they refuse to remain in the past – instead they show the march of time as well as highlight current concerns and opinions at least as much as they showcase an area’s history. This has often been controversial – after all, how long has it taken to construct the Sagrada Familia? But I find it fascinating that sites that are quite old have so much to say about current cultural identity.


These thoughts have been rattling around in my head ever since I read a fascinating article called ¿Publicidad en la Alhambra? (no English version, sorry). The Alhambra is the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, and seriously, if you have never been there, you need to go. Anyway, recently Granada was host to the first ever Twitter conference, which took place June 20-21, 2013. Apart from being surprised that this was the first ever Twitter conference, I was also a little confused as to why Granada was chosen as the location for the inaugural event. After all, when most people think about Granada, they think of . . . the Alhambra. (Seriously, just go visit already). Not exactly part of the Twitter Generation.

Since Granada is a city so steeped in the past, it’s not too surprising that some eyebrows were raised at the projection of the Twitter logo onto the Torre de la Vela for the duration of the 48 hour conference. But I assumed that the eyebrows were due to the clash of old and new and the use of a historic monument for promoting, well, anything. I thought that the controversy stemmed from the view that historical monuments should be representations of a static past, the same issue that has plagued restorations and gift shops around the world.

Not so. The Alhambra has been host to numerous modern messages throughout the years, with the Torre de la Vela proudly displaying posters protesting the widespread eviction problem in Spain, calling people to a general strike, and even publicly disagreeing with administrative changes in a local art gallery. The real issue here is using the side of the Torre de la Vela to show ADVERTISING, to specifically disseminate a message intended to influence people to use a particular good or service. It seems that the intent of the message matters when it comes to putting it on a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The issue is not that the Alhambra must always remain the same as it was when Ferdinand and Isabella stormed the city in 1492. The issue is using a symbol of Moorish history and therefore Andalucian culture (very important) as a commercial for Twitter (not important), although it may be used to highlight other important causes, like worker’s rights and economic suffering. And I think this says something a bit deeper about the nature of the Alhambra’s importance, something that goes beyond “the history of Spain”. The Alhambra and its history belong to the people of Spain in the way popular movements do and the global economy does not. The debate over advertising on the Torre de la Vela throws into relief the importance of the Alhambra to Spanish culture, not because it is a thing that was built in the past, not because it was historically important, but because it represents a current, modern collective identity. Although it is a historic site, it allows for modern usage within certain boundaries, and those boundaries can deepen our understanding of Spanish culture today.

New Blog!!!!!!

Well, not really. If you look closely, you can see that my 80-some past posts are still here, but the URL has changed. I am now “An Academic Abroad”, for a few reasons. One, I’m not in Spain anymore, and two, I was starting to feel really constrained by my blog title/URL. There is so more than just Spain that I want to blog about, but still having to do with travels and academia, so I decided to migrate. Welcome to my new home.

The auxiliares meeting in Raleigh on Friday was really awesome. It was so much fun to talk to other people who had been to Spain, and I got a TON of great information from the consular and the NC Public Schools World Languages Chair. It’s so interesting and great to me that I walked into a room of 15 strangers and had an instant connection with all of them, simply because we had all at one time tasted Fanta Limón and eaten jamón and said “Barthelona”. The consular told me that I had a “nice northern accent” as well (he meant my Spanish accent – I told him I had been living in Andalucía). Plus, I got to go to Raleigh, and that was pretty awesome too.

The weather here is starting to change, and it almost feels like fall. Soon, the two girls I met at the Raleigh meeting, plus several other of my friends, and over 2000 other people will be off to Europe where it is still incredibly hot. Safe travels, everyone!


I’m sure my title will bring a lot of interesting traffic to my blog, but I wanted to write about the news stories I’ve been reading lately about the three suspected terrorists arrested in Cádiz. I know that whenever I read about terrorism in Spain, I think about the March 11th, 2004 bombings of the Cercanías train in the Atocha station of Madrid. It is very similar in impact to the US’s 9-11, although the shorthand for the 2004 bombings is 11-M (once de marzo). There are songs in tribute to the victims, and Spain has a version of “truthers” who think that the bombings were an inside job (although all of the Spaniards I met that held that belief were nice sensible people . . . not at all like the American truthers that get on TV. Perhaps I need to meet a crazier set of Spaniards . . . or I need to watch less TV).


So, the Cádiz terrorists. The story caught my eye since I had lived there for the past year. Two of the three suspects were arrested in Ciudad Real while on a bus trip from Cádiz to Irún (Socibus Secorbus!!! I took that bus line!!!). The third was arrested in La Línea, where all three of them lived (well, technically, the two bus guys lived in San Roque). Many things about them are in dispute; for example, the suspects who took the bus were first reported to be Russians, then Chechnyans, and then simply, “from a former Soviet satellite”. The motive for their bus trip is unknown, although it is what prompted their arrest, as the government had been aware of their terrorist links and feared that they were going to Irún to cross the border into France. Even their suspected terrorist activities are a mystery, since police found only 100 grams of explosives, which the Minister of the Interior insisted could be enough to blow up a bus when mixed with shrapnel. Police also found materials during the search of the suspects’ homes that bomb-sniffing dogs indicated had once held explosives, but had been recently cleaned.


Although the suspects had military training – evidenced when one of the Russo-Chechnyan Soviets put up quite a fight during his arrest – and even documentation on flying drone planes, it’s unclear whether these men were actually members of Al Qaeda or another manifestation of the “lone wolf” that Europe has seen so much of lately, most tragically in the Brevik Norway shootings and the Toulouse anti-Semitic gunman. Of course, both possibilities are frightening, but I would actually feel more reassured if it turns out that these were unaffiliated terrorists. Trying to identify and stop members of a known violent group must be hard enough, but successfully stopping someone working alone gives me hope that tragedies like those in Norway and France can be avoided. However, the fact that these suspects seem to be working, if not alone, then at least without coordination from the main Al Qaeda network, means that it will be difficult to prove criminal intent, especially since the men were arrested before actually blowing anything up. It’s not that these men didn’t do anything illegal – there are pages and pages of very dense laws on the books having to do with the production and possession of explosives. But we’re wading into some interesting legal territory here, and I’m interested to see how it develops.


My news feed on the right has a few articles on the arrests. The first is from the Christian Science Monitor and summarizes the events in English. El Mundo gives some early news in the second article, but the third El País report is definitely the best, although it is in Spanish (sorry guys). The fourth article from ABC is a bit newer and discusses the search for explosives in the houses and businesses of the 3 suspects, and the fifth article isn’t about the Cádiz terrorists at all. Bringing this post full circle, article #5 brings us the news that the newest installment of the “Medal of Honor” first-person shooter will include . . . scenes intending to reference 11-M. Although they don’t come out and say, “This is Atocha and these are the 2004 bombings”, they reference Madrid, and that screenshot of the train station looks and awful lot like Atocha, doesn’t it? As the cut scene goes on, a group of men with vaguely Arab features blow up a train.


Most interesting to me is that the writer of article five is barely restraining his disdain for what he suggests is a sales tactic. And the first comment? “Come on, they say that this looks like 11-M, when they put Arab features on the one who set the bombs it’s just for show. They should put Iberian features on him, since the ones who did it were from here instead.” [Translation mine]

Por fin

It only took 5 days, but Spain now has a medal – two, in fact! Mireia Belmonte García won silver in the 200-meter butterfly, and just today, Maialen Chourraut won the bronze in the K-1 kayaking competition. Spain’s basketball team gets to play Great Britain in about an hour, and tennis and handball should be watched closely as well.


It is hard for me to believe that just one year ago, I was getting ready to go to Spain. I read the posts on Facebook from the new crowd of auxiliares, and it makes me both proud and a little disbelieving that I was doing the exact same thing, and that here I am one year later, a former expat! I’ve made contact with the person who will be taking my job, and both she and I are super excited about the upcoming year.


I’m working on that “Travels” menu up at the top of the page . . . very slowly. Perhaps once the school year begins again and I have an office to think and work in again, I’ll work more on those pages. Right now the only one that is finished is Alcalá de los Gazules, but I have a Cádiz city page in the works, and eventually I want to have a page for every place I have visited. The perfectionist in me doesn’t want me to write them unless they are stellar though, which is why it’s taking so long. I go to write something, and then I think, wait, where was that place? When did I go there? What did the tour guide say about the history? Then I need to do research and I get distracted, and the next thing I know, it’s 5 hours later and I still haven’t written anything.


What I did do was finish my scrapbook. It turned out really well, and I had fun making each city name look like some famous emblem; one of the Ls in Sevilla is the Giralda, Bilbao has the Guggenheim coming out of the top of the letters . . . I still have quite the collection of maps, and I’m looking forward to putting them up in my office. Perhaps I haven’t mentioned enough, but this year I get my own office at work. No more sharing with other teachers who just want to talk to you . . . ahhhh. It’s a nice feeling.

Seoul 1988

The year and place in my title being the last time Spain began so poorly in the Olympics. It is day 4 and Spain has yet to medal in anything. According to the linked article, this is not new, as Spain tends to win a lot of medals in team competitions, the finals of which are at the end of the Games. However in 2008, Spain had won a gold by the end of day 1, thanks to Sammy Sánchez in the road race, then won a bronze the next day in fencing. In fact, Spain won a total of 18 medals in Beijing. In Athens, Spain won their first medal on day 3, and went on to win 18 more medals.


In some disciplines, there is still hope. Spain played France yesterday in women’s handball and tied 18-18, and the men’s basketball team beat Australia 82-70. In others, Spain is definitively out of medal contention, such as Melania Costa, who didn’t made the finals for the 200 meter freestyle, although there are other swimmers still in contention, such as Mireia Belmonte in the 200 butterfly.


The political cartoonists are having fun with the whole Olympics-in-an-economic-crisis theme. Here’s a series of cartoons depicting some new Olympic sports, such as the “economy throw” (shotput is called cannonball throw in Spanish), the “risk premium jump“, the “shooting for a job” (archery is called shooting at a target in Spanish), and  “uphill rowing” (with a very threatening crisis-gator at the bottom of the slope). Really reinforcing the fact that these Olympics are not taking people’s minds off of the economy, what with the lack of medals and all.


In other news, I have too many friends who are still in Europe. I go on Facebook and I’m spoiled every time for the evening broadcasts. I suppose I could just not go on Facebook . . . but then how would I have found this amazing article of the faces Olympic divers make in slow motion??

How the mighty have fallen

No remarks from my cousin, please. I must admit I had a liiiiiiiittle too much fun watching the Eurocup with him while my family and I were at the beach. He studied Italian in college and when Spain beat Italy 4-0 I probably sang “Campeones” a few times too many. Now I find that Spain is OUT of the running for the medal in soccer, after ONE ROUND, losing to Honduras 1-0.


That cuts down on my Spain-watching quite a bit. Men’s basketball began today with a Spain-China matchup, which they won 97-81. They play again on Monday against Australia. Cycling has been going on these past 2 days as well: Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sánchez both rode in the road race yesterday, although neither medaled (Vinokurov won that one). There will be some time trials on Monday to watch and some track cycling starting Tuesday to finish up.


Another sport to watch for Spain, which I didn’t mention in my last post, is handball. Handball is an interesting sport, and it is very popular in Europe, both men’s and women’s teams. I like to think of it as water polo, but without the water. Or you could think of it as basketball with the goal on the ground and a goalkeeper like in soccer. The women’s team for Spain lost to South Korea yesterday 27-31, and the men’s team beat Serbia today 26-21.


So far Spain hasn’t won any medals, but the JJOO are still young, and we can only wait to see what tomorrow brings!