Saturday, April 30, 2011

Semana Santa Culture

I spent the remainder of Semana Santa, the Holy Week, in Granada. Although it rained and many of the religious processions were canceled, I was able to see one.
The creepy-looking KKK costumes are actually a religious tradition...and it's a huge honor to wear one. Some of the people walked in their socks (it was too cold for bare feet!) as penitence.
This was the first "float," if you can call it that when it's actually carried by 20+ people underneath it, which portrays a bloody Jesus. It is, again, a big honor to carry one of these platforms, and they practice all year with tiny, coordinated steps and lifts just for this week.
More costumes, these ones green- and some kiddies in the parade! Like any parade, there were marching bands and groups of soldiers marching as well.
This is the main attraction of every procession: the platform with the Virgin Mary. 

These women were wearing black with large traditional combs and mantillas, or veils. They were so beautiful!

It was sad that many processions were canceled, but I was glad to be able to see one. It was so interesting and chilling all at the same time: the members of the processions were very solemn, as was the music. It's good to see another very different element of culture over here. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Spring Break in Barcelona

This week is Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Spain, the week leading up to Easter. It also marks spring break for those of us studying abroad, and I planned a trip to Barcelona for the first part of the week. My mom surprised me by deciding to come and visit and spend 4 days in Barcelona with me! This was a big surprise, since my parents had already determined they weren't coming over; and plus, Mom doesn't speak a word of Spanish so it was really brave of her!

We met up in the airport and navigated the metro to our hotel. The first night there, we walked to the Arc of Triumph, a landmark that would become our route back to the hotel for the rest of our stay. That night there was a huge fair going on around the arc, which was fun to walk around and look at all the open markets. We went to a cafe off of the Park Cuitadell, only to find that they weren't serving food (so we ordered a pitcher of sangria instead)! That was definitely one of the issues we had in Barcelona: the mealtimes. Our hotel was outside of the city center so the small places around us were pretty set on the typical Spanish mealtimes. We had a good evening despite that, and found a different place and ordered Spanish tapas: croquettes, tortilla, and Irish potatoes.

Santa Maria del Mar
The second day we walked to the Gothic Quarter of the city, where the city center becomes winding little streets with shops, landmarks, and restaurants scattered throughout. The big museums were closed on Mondays for some reason, but we saw St. Mary of the Sea church, the Barcelona Cathedral, the famous Music Hall, and St. Pere church. It was a lot of walking, and we looked at bus tours that the city offered for the next two days.

We started off Tuesday waiting in line at the Sagrada Familia, the huge cathedral designed by Gaudi. I had heard a lot about the Sagrada Familia, especially that it was hard to get inside, so we arrived early. The cathedral has 2 facades: the Nativity, with the familiar scene surrounded by ornate animals and figures; and the Passion facade, which shows several scenes carved with curves and geometric figures. The inside was incredible! It looked like something out of the movie Avatar. Gaudi was inspired by many different forms found in nature, from flower and tree shapes, to geometric shapes and spirals. We were also able to climb one of the towers and look out over the city and the construction- the cathedral is still not completed. The missing piece is a massive dome, which would rise over the 100-meter-high towers. It will be truly awesome!
Sagrada Familia: Nativity facade

Not 15 minutes after our visit, the Sagrada Familia was hit by an arson attack in one of the towers. The place was evacuated of 1500 people, and Mom and I were lucky to escape the mobbed park on our tour bus. We next went to Park Guell, a famous site also designed by Gaudi, and from there around the city and back to the center, where we saw 2 of Gaudi's houses. Truly Barcelona was Gaudi's architectural playground.

We also enjoyed Basque pinxos (pinchos are like tapas, small portions served with drinks, only with large toothpicks holding them together) at a place called Euskal Etxera, which was a highlight of the trip for me. It was so cool! I thought of Dad, and of home in general, with the appetizer-like servings. There were some pretty interesting combos of flavors, and although we had to scrape some very strong fish out at one point, it was really great. 

On Wednesday, we went to the Picasso Museum, which was really interesting. I didn't know Picasso started out with realistic portraits and landscapes, and the museum showed his evolution really well. My favorite part was seeing his variations on the Spanish painter Velazquez's famous painting, Las Meninas

We continued on the tour bus to see some upper-class parts of the city, including the old Royal Palace, the soccer stadium, the 1992 Olympic stadium, a monument to Christopher Columbus, and finally the beach!
We woke up before dawn on Thursday to start our respective was an amazing trip with my Mom :) we bonded a lot and enjoyed the sights together, and it is probably the longest amount of time I'll be spending with family for the summer, so it was well worth the problems I had actually getting to and from Barcelona! Luckily Mom's longer and more complicated trip was easier than mine. Thanks for reading: up next, the Semana Santa processions in Granada.
Mom on top of the Barcelona Cathedral!

Casa Batllo, designed by Gaudi

Gaudi's famous residential building

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Parque Nacional Doñana

This past weekend, I spent 2 days in Huelva, a region in southwestern Spain. The same hiking group that organized my trip to the caves of Aracena goes to the Doñana National Park every year to view the wildlife and museums there. Doñana is one of Europe's oldest national parks dedicated to conserving wildlife. The park features 4 distinct terrains: the famous marshes, huge rolling dunes, carefully tended pine forests, and the beach.
We started out at the Alba mansion in the area. The Alba family is one of the oldest noble families anywhere in Europe, and this palace has been converted into a museum telling the history of the park and its caretakers. It looked like a big country house, somewhere I could imagine a very wealthy family going for a summer retreat of hunting and enjoying the nearby lake.
On Saturday also we went to the beach. It was fun to think that I was seeing the Atlantic Ocean from the other side!! Usually my extended family rents houses in Salisbury for a week or so in August...and this could be the very same water. It was pretty chilly, but made for a relaxing afternoon. We stayed overnight in a RV camp that had little cabins as well. Again I was struck by the group setting and how everyone took meals together and shared their food. These trips have been excellent practice for my Spanish.

On Sunday, we started off at the village of el Rocio, a famous attraction for religious pilgrims throughout the centuries. El Rocio was an important conquest during the Reconquista, or the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims during the 1400's. The village boasts a beautiful little church known as Virgin del Rocio, or Our Lady of Rocio, as well as a great view into the marshlands, where flamingos and wild horses live side by side. The town also has tourist shops, though many offer horse-riding gear and fashion, which is very different from the tourist shops I've seen elsewhere. They also offer horse and pony rides or carriage rides. It was quite a nice way to start off the day.

After that, we went to the Parque Nacional itself. Like the Alba mansion, there were lots of wooden walkways to various lookouts into the marshes, and lots of different types of trees, flowers, and birds. I was reminded of my parents; I think they would enjoy this kind of excursion.
Finally came the crowning point of our journey: a 4-hour tour of the park in a overglorified Range Rover/bus! We drove 30km down the beach between Huelva and Cadiz, which was beautiful. There were very few people, since no vehicles other than these tour buses are allowed, and lots of seabirds, as well as a few black kites.
We turned inland when we reached the end of the coastline, where Spain's river the Guadalquivir runs into the ocean. (Side note: I learned today in my Islamic Culture class that Guadalquivir is from an Arabic root and means great river). From there we found a more forested area, and although it had been carefully logged to help the pine trees grow, it was full of various plants and animals. We saw some incredible vines at one point, and at another stopped and got out of the bus to see wild horses and deer across a field grazing peacefully together. We also saw wild boar.
In this part of the tour we stopped at this little monument of huts that people lived in right up through the 1900's as caretakers to the park. There were exhibits on how they were built and how the lean-to is similar to the materials they used. There were also thousands of little hermit crabs on the shore of the river near there!

The next part of the tour showed us marshland, starting with watery pools among the trees and changing slowly to huge fields of marshland. I believe this is the area that American scientists think the lost city of Atlantis could have been. We saw more birds throughout this area, and the Spaniards were especially excited over the sighting of an aguila, or eagle, sitting on the top of a tree some distance away.
I think we were lucky to have a good driver; although there were points that I was certain we would slide on the sandy ground, we never did, and he pointed out and explained some parts of the trip. We passed through some extreme mud and I thought of Dan and Megan and their golf carts; who said Spain doesn't have a mud season?? This would be a perfect job for Dan!
 The next leg of the trip absolutely wowed me. We drove into the dunes, and right over zillions of them. I had never seen real sand dunes before, and they were bigger than buildings. Whole forests were underneath them: literally. Apparently dunes shift away from the ocean over time with the sea winds, and they swallow up forests whole. We saw this several times, and it was so cool to think I could walk on some greenery midway up the dune, and it's actually the top of the forest, growing up through the sand.
Finally we were back on the beach to finish our loop of the park, and the group packed up and we headed home to Granada. I think God heard my prayers about my Iphone, which was running out of battery, because it survived the 6 hour ride home on less than 20% battery...and I was in the kiddie van!

Thanks for reading! My next post will be after spring break, also known as Semana Santa (the week before Easter).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Class Profile: Islamic Culture

Another great class I'm taking while studying abroad here at the University of Granada is Islamic Culture, a class all about the Islamic religion and what it means to be a Muslim. It's one of my favorites here at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas because it's something that isn't commonly taught or required in the United States. Of course there are programs for Islamic Studies and Arabic, but I've learned so much already in this class and realized just how ignorant many Americans are about this ancient culture.

Taught by Juan Antonio, a mild, curly-haired guy probably about in his late 20's, this class is in our CLM A building, closer than the other building. It takes me about 10 minutes to get there through the center of the city.

We started out learning about some differences between the Arab world and the Islamic world. Although they are connected in terms of geography and where the religion began and where its strongest roots lie, there are Muslims all over the world. It's a question of identity and language, and although religion and politics are extremely intertwined in many Arab countries, right down to the language itself, not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabic.
We moved on to the history of pre-Islamic Arabia, where nomadic and sedimentary tribes structured the desert lands. Caravans and trade were the only peace between the tribes, especially when they made their pilgrimages to Mecca to worship the polytheistic gods and goddesses of the time. This way of life is the earliest recorded in and around the Arabian peninsula, dating from the time of the Greeks into the late Roman periods. It is so interesting to see the connections between the old religions and the new, in any form of new religion that comes into history.
The real history of Islam begins with Muhammad, an orphan raised by his merchant uncle. Growing up traveling and seeing many peoples and ways of life, Muhammad became a reflective and honest merchant. He worked for and later married an older widow and had several daughters. When he was in his 30's or 40's, Muhammad started going to caves near the city of Mecca where he had settled to reflect on various issues, especially social injustices and human rights. It was in these caves in 610 A.D. that he had his first revelation from Allah, who told him throughout the next few years what would later become the Koran, or Qur'an. His followers grew quickly and were persecuted by the Meccans; he escaped in 622 A.D. to what is now Medina with them to start the Islamic nation. This date marks the start of the Islamic calendar. They fought several battles with the Meccans before triumphing; however, the Islamic faith is not about forcing people to convert, but rather is about tolerance and acceptance.
The figure of Muhammad, however, is strictly historical. Muslims do not believe in any sons of God, only that he sent 4 messengers to Earth and over 70 prophets. The 4 messengers were Moses, who brought the Torah; Solomon with his Pslams, Jesus, who had the Gospel; and Muhammad, who had what Muslims believe was the true message of God to his followers, the Qur'an. The 5 pillars of the Islamic religion are as follows: testimony (like the profession of faith), prayer (5x daily), fasting (especially in Ramadan, the holy month), charity (Muslims pay at least 2.5% of all they make and have to alms), and the pilgrimage to Mecca, which includes its own rituals and practices.
photos from the Islamic influence exhibit at the Parque de Ciencias
Now, after our mid-term, the class is moving into the Islamic Empire that grew after Muhammad's death in 632 A.D. I am hoping we will focus on some modern themes as well as history; but this structure is perfect because so many groups and various traditions that we hear about today started with people in the past.

It's so interesting to learn about this area of the world, especially given the involvement of the U.S. in the Middle East in recent times. It's also incredible to hear some of the stereotypes or hyped-up stories we hear through the media about Muslims and Arabic peoples, and it's also good to learn the peaceful origins of this religion, compared to the strife we see today. Thank you for reading!
The mosque in Mecca, which holds the revered Kaaba

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Parque de Ciencias

Today, my friend Rachel and I went to Granada's Science Park. It was so cool! We started off with the first building, which had some mind-teasing puzzles and games, as well as interesting rooms on the planets, on Earth's layers and makeup, then a room full of mirrors and lasers and lights, and finally an exhibit of old machines like typewriters and clocks.
The park has a huge courtyard with a cafeteria and lots of crazy playground activities fun for all ages to wrap their heads around. I think my favorite was the fountain, which had these revolving posts in it that splashed water all around. It's getting pretty toasty here!

Next we went to the observatory tower. The park has a planetarium, an astrology observatory, and an observatory tower that overlooks the city. Unfortunately it was a little humid and smoggy out today, and we couldn't see very far, but it was still fun! 

Continuing through the courtyard, we saw some cool water setups, like a solar-powered fountain that runs water to nearby gardens, a mock twister in a cylinder, and some sort of model waterworks with lots of handles to turn and fun things to play with. There was a big chess setup and some more mind-scrambling games and puzzles, all leading to the gardens of various plants and trees.
My favorite part of the day was the Butterfly House. It's set up like a greenhouse, with a real little tropical scene inside, complete with water and turtles and fish. We saw some beautiful butterflies! And they weren't shy, either; although they took some people by surprise I will never understand people who run away screaming from something so beautiful and harmless.

The biggest building was yet to come. There is so much to see at this park, it takes several days! We missed out on temporary exhibits, the planetarium, and a few rooms in this central building. Here we had a room on the human body, which is interesting but weirds me out a little. Hanging above that were various animal skeletons, which were much more interesting. I also enjoyed the massive taxidermy exhibit, which had a lot of cool animals displayed.
The central theme of the park, at least in this moment, is puzzles, and what better way to show it than the M.C. Escher exhibit? Escher is the father of tessellations and paradoxical drawings, like the ascending and descending stairs in a square, or the various woodcuts he did using the chiaroscuro technique. I spent a full hour in this room admiring his works and enjoying the atmosphere. The Parque de Ciencias does a great job of setting up the right atmosphere in each room according to its theme.

The last room I went into was a series of exhibits on the Arabic influence in Andalucia, especially in terms of their ancient sciences. Given my enjoyment of my Islamic Culture class (profile soon to come!) you can imagine that this was especially interesting for me!

To top the day off, there was a live bird area, with all different types of big, trained birds. I liked the huge buzzard, but the focus of the day was clearly on owls: a sign? :) There were 3 beautiful owls within 2 feet of me, and it was really special because we have them at home sometimes but never can get so close! Definitely thought of Dad while taking these shots.
Despite missing out on some buildings and exhibits, it was a really great day at the park. Thank you for reading!