The Wolves

 

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of traveling to one of Spain’s finest national parks: Lago de Sanabria. Even though our program has 35 students, only a select 12 could go, given the awesome, peculiar nature of this trip. We were going to a place of natural solace, a place with distinct beauty, a place where we would need silence; we were going to track the Iberian wolf.

We made the two-hour-and-some trek to Lago de Sanabria where we eagerly unloaded all of our things into the homey, small, wooden cabins there in the mountains. The first thing I noticed was, lamentably, that I had not been in real, honest-to-God nature for such a long time. Finally, I was around pine trees, ancient moss covered oaks, clear lakes, and mountains. Whew, this was well needed! I am happy to report that my mental health improved by leagues as we stepped on to our first trail in the snow peaked mountains.

We spent the weekend in a natural paradise. The first morning we got to take a guided tour on the world’s first 100% ecological (motor) boat. It makes no sound, no waves, and is 100% powered by solar panels and wind power. As this is one of the most protected lakes in the country, the only way they would allow a boat on the water was, well, if they made one. Later, we went on another hike through the snow-frosted peaks of the area, passing through small mountainous villages as we went.

On the last day of the trip, we woke up early and headed to the wolf reservation. These animals, a species of grey wolf only native to the Iberian peninsula, used to roam most of Western Europe. Today about 2,000 remain. Needless to say, many of them live in protected environments in Lago de Sanabria. The problem is, however, they remains “undomesticated” and, consequently, extremely skittish. To see the wolves is to hide yourself entirely from their sight… and, even more challenging, out of their ear’s reach. We went at sunset, feeding time for the Iberian wolf. We hunkered down in a specialized camouflaged bunker, set on a tree line where the alphas are said to roam. Here, the rest would come. We just had to wait. So we waited, and waited, and then, out of the tree line came the wolves. They dominated the terrain. Inexplicably, they navigated so cautiously, so powerfully, so surely, that they had probably heard us before we had seen them. They had come to eat. It was if they had an internal clock. No sooner than it had turned exactly the hour, the wolves came. They knew. We were blown away by these animals and their intelligence. Most of all, we were amazed at how, in many ways, the wolf was more human than we were. Learning of their behaviours, family structures, and lifestyle, it became clear how special these animals were. We sat there in silence and awe as the beasts devoured their evening meal, and as the Spanish sunset put itself out on their backs.

Below is a poem I wrote (in Spanish) about the event. It was impactful in ways I couldn’t really sum up in a different way. I hope you all enjoy it, but be cautious of what you read on Google Translate. You can’t trust everything you see on the Internet.

Best,

El Lobo

Los bosques de España llaman a unas pocas personas

Que se atreven a responder

Entre la sombra caminan, sin camino, sin saber

Adónde van, qué quieren, qué van a hacer

Como todo el mundo, en su vida resulta igual,

los que con la voluntad de buscar

Les encontrarán menos mal

Pero en la compañía de los árboles, entre su ventosa conversación,

Tenemos claro lo que nos falta

Nos aparece nuestra aparición

Cómo suenan los ríos, qué bonitos son!

En su riqueza descansamos, su poder nos inspiró

Aunque son sencillos, sin vuelta, con patrón

Siempre hay mis pensamientos, allí, en montón   

Sobre todo vamos caminando, pase lo que pase

Por las lagunas, vamos, por las piedras y tal

Nos acuerda del pequeñez, la grandeza, de la vida real

Allí lo vimos, en su reino de robles y musgo,

Lo saludamos por su gracia

Viviendo escondido en sus tierras de vieja

One of the visitors centers that welcomed us at the park
This was one of the most beautiful animals I had seen. She was relaxing after her sunset meal.
Solar powered. Wind powered. Noiseless. Like a boat-Prius.
Just a couple of kids and a cliff, overlooking Lago de Sanabria, the largest glacial lake on the Iberian Peninsula.
I am debating with this guide about the efficiency of wearing 6 coats wrapped around my waist while hiking up hill. I did not win.
Here’s the group at the lake.
One of the “paths” up the mountain.
Here’s a wolf “hideout”. We had to view them through holes in camouflaged wood.
Here are two of the non-alpha females. As you can see, we were very close to the animals.

 

Cheira Bem, Cheira a Lisboa

 

Lisbon, Portugal

This past weekend IES took us on a trip to Portugal. To be completely honest, as far as weather is concerned, the last two or three weeks in Salamanca have been… less than ideal. That’s to say, every single day for a pretty much constant 18-21 days, we have enjoyed a frigid cold rain. I can’t really complain, right? I mean a couple days of rain and temperature hovering around the 40’s is really nothing compared to what my compadres in Michigan are currently dealing with (sorry, Holland folks). Besides, I’m in Spain! Needless to say, a weekend bus ride out of the rain to coastal Portugal seemed to all 30 of us as a welcomed relief. Just at that perfect moment, you know, when you’re really excited about something, we all got an email: Severe thunder and rain storms moving through Portugal, Spain. Look out for floods. Rain all weekend. “Sweet”, we thought. At least we would be getting drenched by Portuguese rain, which, as I’ve heard, is a better, less wet, kind of rain.

The bus ride was about 7 hours to Lisbon, but we made a stop about half way – in rainy Coimbra, Salamanca’s sister city in Portugal. We had to do our planned guided tour from inside the bus (on account of the rain); we didn’t mind. We had a few hours of free time where most of us decided to split up and head to the cafes. I sat down, excited to try pasteis de nata (a typical and delicious Portuguese dessert), and instinctually ordered myself a coffee, “¿Qué tal, tío, me pones un café americano solo, y un….?” Then it hit me. I had just ordered my coffee in Spanish – only catching myself by not knowing how to say “pasteis de nata” in Spanish. The waiter looked at me in my sincere state of confusion. I stared at him for 10 seconds in silence as my brain decided whether or not we spoke Portuguese. Deciding we didn’t, “you, uh… you speak English?”, I said.

“Yeah, man. What do you want?”

It was not when we crossed the border, not when I stepped off the bus in Portugal, and not when I walked around Coimbra, that I realized I had finally left Spain. You see, I hadn’t even realized that for two months I had not left the country. Spain had been my only home for these eight or nine weeks and it had conditioned me to speak Spanish at all times in public places. Well, lucky for us, the Portuguese have an excellent and obligatory English education in their primary schools. They all speak English pretty well. With my first Portuguese “cultural collision” out of the way, we headed to Portugal’s capital city.

The first thing you’ll notice about the magnificent Lisbon is that it is oddly similar to San Francisco. From the dark-red suspension bridge, to the constant climbing and descending of hills, to the windy weather, Lisbon was an entirely captivating place. Although our first night in Lisbon was spent in a hotel listening to rain, (parts of) our next two days were unexpectedly lovely. Blue skies, t-shirt weather, and the sunny bay of Lisbon – it was truly a gorgeous experience. We got a great view of the city from the tallest point (a castle), we watched a Fado show (Portugal’s “flamenco”), we dined Portugal style (you must try the Bacalao), we saw incredible coastal cliffs, we enjoyed the marvel of Portugal’s monuments, churches, and basilicas; we did it all. Without spoiling too much of the experience for others who may venture to go, I will simply say that I adore this city and its charm, and only wish that I had more than two days to explore it and enjoy.  I will, without a doubt, be coming back to Lisbon. And IF you do come, among the countless pleasures that exist here, I cannot overstate my love of the food. For, as the traditional Portuguese song reminds us, cheira bem, cheira a Lisboa (It smells good, it smells like Lisbon).

Coimbra. We stopped here for a rainy bus-tour of the city’s quaint university.
We got a dinner and a show our first night in Portugal! Here, the performers blew the crowd away with a traditional style of Portuguese singing called “fado”. It was breathtaking.
Candid photo of yours truly having an episodic experience on top of this ancient fortress. I think in this photo I was listening to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack and pretending I was a pirate. Don’t knock it until you try it.
These cliffs on Lisbon’s coast were one of the coolest things I have ever seen. The name does not overstate itself, “Boca del Infierno” (Mouth of Hell). Here, the waves crashed with such immense force that salty spray would hit you from hundreds of yards away.
Here’s another view of Lisbon from on top of the castle. Check out the bridge in the background. It was built by a California bridge company AFTER the Golden Gate after Portugal had experienced some devastating earthquakes. The suspension bridge appealed to them as much for safety as for style. This castle was positioned for defending the port (pictured above), and still has cannons to this day watching over the main plaza (the square part touching the bay without buildings).
In Lisbon, the peacocks are as abundant as the fresh air.
Pasteis de nata (right). I would describe them as: flaky outside, custard inside. Worth the trip alone.
Again, Lisbon. Here the city is pictured during one of our brief hours with sun.

 

Lisbon’s “Central Park”

 

Hell’s Mouth. The raw power was mesmerizing; I sat entranced for an hour watching the crashing of the waves.

 

Running with the Bulls

Last week was “El Carnaval” in Spain. Traditionally, this time was designated for the people to, well, purge themselves before Lent. Carnival doesn’t have the same religious implications as it once did, but that doesn’t stop the party. For about a week (sometimes more), people eat, drink, and are merry in celebrations all around the world! Last week I had the distinct privilege to travel to a local pueblo near Salamanca called Ciudad Rodrigo. In this small corner of Spain there is a Carnival celebration unlike any other in the world; they run the bulls. As I’ve heard, this is not a common practice to do during Carnival, in fact, this may be the only city in the world that incorporates the running of the bulls into their Carnival. Either way, being a romantic myself, and always having idealized bullfighting as it has been described in works of literature (Hemingway, etc), I had to see it for myself- to run it for myself. I wanted to stare in the face of death – of a 2,500 lb horned beast – and, with the grace of a great bullfighter of old, at the very last moment, to slip past the animal, with adrenaline potent in the blood and sweat running cold down the neck.

Let me disclaim: I did not run with the bulls. I didn’t ever really consider it. We had been told (this was NOT an IES sanctioned event) by IES and many others: “People die every year, don’t run with the bulls, these people are trained professionals, this is not a game.” They were right. But that can’t stop me from dreaming, right?

Anyways, determined not to run, I set myself up in perfect position to watch the running. The narrow streets of cobblestone were fenced in, and me, perched high on top of a section of fence that allowed me a clear double-view of a bended section of road. Then, we heard it. Three rings of the church bells. People started to clear the streets at a leisure pace. Three more rings of the bell. Then three more. It’s starting, I thought. Why are people still just walking in the streets? Just then, the town’s church bells began to holler frantically, as if signalling a foreign invader; and they were doing just that. The wild beasts were coming. The streets literally shook as a tangible electricity passed through the crowd. The streets were empty before you could blink – save for a few, seemingly fearless, young men. These men weren’t drunk, they weren’t scared, and they didn’t seem distant and preoccupied. If ever there was a group of people alive, awake, in the precise moment with which they were presented, the bull runners certainly were it. They were electrified, vigilant, intently watching the road before them, feeling the very tremors of the cobblestone under their feet. And then they came. There we were, all together in one place: six bulls running for their lives, a handful of young men running for theirs, and thousands of onlookers holding their breath. The bulls charged onward trying to harm any man who stood in their way. Their horns, impossibly sharp, thrashing past at a break neck pace. It was hard, if not downright impossible, to watch. After an intense fifteen-second swirl of adrenaline and excitement, the bulls had all passed, and the crowd audibly exhaled.

Luckily, this year, nobody was injured. I imagine that the bull-goring specialist doctors that were there were relieved to be unneeded. However, their job was far from over. These bulls would continue to run twice a day for the next several days, to and from La Plaza de los Toros. On this particular day, I followed the bulls to their destination in the plaza, a small sand arena where, for 10 euro, you can sit and watch La Corrida, the actual bullfight. I decided I had to see it. Although controversial, I will tell you that my reservations about bullfighting were mostly resolved after watching a bullfight in person. Think what you will about the event (I certainly have my own opinions on it), the absolute artistry of these small town bullfighters nearly blew me off my seat. Their grace, their style, their showmanship, all eternally referencing, in a way, a respect for that great animal. I stayed for hours watching four bullfights and La Capea (where the people are allowed in the ring with the wild bulls) and truly enjoyed every moment.

This experience was undoubtedly my favorite so far of being in Spain. The cultural value of seeing, with my own eyes, a real running of the bulls was priceless. This will be one of the memories that I recall with extreme fondness that will have characterized my time here in Spain.

 

My view from on top of the fence lining the street shortly before the bulls came running through.
La Plaza de Toros, Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain
An amateur bullfighter tests his luck
View from on top of a hill of the city. The festival includes carnival rides, games, street food, parades, music, and bulls.

 

Dressing up in costumes is… required. As you can see, we chose the “farm animal” theme, although it is much more common for “groups” of friends to dress up as the same exact thing – to better identify themselves, I’m sure. I am depicted on the bottom row dressed appropriately as a bull.

 

Sunday, Paella Day

Sundays in Spain, as they are traditionally known, are for making paella. For those of you unfamiliar with this Spanish dish, it is perhaps the most well-known and best tasting cuisine you could really ask for in Spain. It consists of a delicious mixture of seafood, rice, vegetables and sometimes (although not this time) rabbit. For those of you who have had paella, you certainly understand why it deserves a blog post of its own. This week my host mom asked me if I wanted to learn how to make this sea-food and rice wonder. I delightfully accepted. So, today, I intend to blog a step-by-step process of what I learned (for my memory’s sake as well as for you all). Although you can always find “recipes” online, my host-mom insists hers is the most authentic.

DISCLAIMER: All measurements are 100% eyeballed because according to my mom, “real cooking doesn’t have a recipe”. Let’s begin.

1.) We cut: onions, red peppers, and green peppers. Done.

2.) Heat up some olive oil in a saucepan (pictured below, the pan on the far right). Once the oil is hot, throw in all your veggies.

 

3.) The most important part of paella is the broth. This is where all the flavor comes from (there are no spices involved in paella). To make the broth you take basically all the stuff that the fish market throws away (fish bones, fish heads, skin, etc), and put it in water and boil it for 15-20 minutes (that’s what’s in the covered pot on the right). You’re welcome for forgetting to take a picture of this step.

4.) You take out the fish eye balls, bones, and guts, and, leaving the “broth”, throw them away. In the trash. My mom is depicted (above) picking the meat off the “trash items”. This step is optional. She really likes fish, I guess. Now we can get to the real cooking.

5.) Clean (slightly) some fresh mussels and put them into the broth. Boil them in the broth for 5 minutes or until they open up. Take them out, leave the broth. Set aside. Take off the side of the shell without any meat on it. Trash.

6.) Clean some fresh clams. Repeat step 5.

7.) By this time your veggies are probably ready. Take all that tasty fish/mussel/clam-broth you just made and pour it right into your veggie pan with a colander! The colander of course, to sift out the stray fish-eye here and there.

8.) Dump some rice into the mixture (about 1 cup per person) and boil it. You can’t really use basmati rice, or even long grain rice for that matter (the rice has to have no flavor to best absorb the fish flavor). Use round short-grain rice.

9.) Salt indiscriminately. I think my mom had her eyes shut for this part. Not sure. Like I said before, this is the ONLY SPICE/HERB/ANYTHING in this entire dish, and she barely put any in. Less is more, blah, blah, blah.

10.) Clean some fresh fish filet, and throw them right on top. I think you also have to say, “Ole!”, when you do it for it to be effective. (Remember, clean as little as possible in order to leave the flavor of the fish). Choose a fish you like. My mom chose her favorite (and Spain’s most popular paella fish), Monkfish. This fish is perhaps the ugliest living thing I’ve ever seen, but tasted magical.

11.) Cut up some fresh calamari, and throw it on top of this magical boiling Spanish stew. Keep a light boil going throughout this whole thing.

12.) Time for some gambas. Er, I mean, shrimp! Whole shrimp. Head, eyes, and all. My mom used krill instead, but shrimp is most common. Remember, fresh!

13.) Remember those mussels and clams? They’re already cooked, so go ahead and toss them on top of everything too. (Pictured below, you will start to notice you’re running out of room in the pot, and it becomes like playing Tetris, fitting in all the seafood!)

14.) Let the mussels and clams heat back up (face down, of course), let the rice finish its last few minutes, and remove from heat.

15.) Put the pot on the table next to a couple of lemons cut in half. Feel free to douse your rice with some lemon juice. This, so they say, is they authentic way to eat paella.

16.) (Below) Serve in giant heaps on your plate and dig in! Make sure you have a communal “trash plate”, where you can throw your shrimp tails, mussel shells, etc.

17.) A glass of white wine is MOST typical, but my host brother is 17 (sorry, man), and also my host mom forgot to pick some up, so water works fine too!

Note*** “Old style” paella typically contained saffron, a herb/spice that gave the traditional dish a yellow color. Saffron got too expensive to say the least. Buying enough saffron to make our dish today would have costed us about $50 USD. Since the flavor of saffron “really doesn’t matter or change the dish that much”, we didn’t use it today. I commented on the lack of color (I’ve seen pictures in textbooks, okay?) so my mom added some yellow food coloring at the very end just for me, so I could feel like my paella experience was more “authentic”. The things we do for our guests, I guess.

Enjoy!

How’s Spain?

Today marks the end of my third week in Salamanca, Spain. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have been in touch with many of my friends and family from home, talking, texting, or video-chatting, and each time, understandably, they all  ask the same thing: “How’s Spain?” What a question! Loaded, without a doubt. Knowing that the person who has asked me this question probably doesn’t have 12 hours to talk on the phone, one must be prepared to condense; that’s to say, you’ve got to come up with a script: “Things are good”, “I’m making friends”, “I’m having fun”, or my personal favorite, simply, “Good”. The truth is that although some things have been difficult, each day has brought innumerable surprises, joys, and most importantly, “firsts”, that could not possibly be entirely articulated in any phone call, text message, or work of art. But we have to do something, right? After all, people want to see at the very least the highlight reel.

Therefore, in order to best characterize my abroad experience so far (a truly impossible and frustrating task), it would be necessary to speak of the firsts. So, in an effort to give you all a three-week run down of “How’s Spain?”, living in a new country, with a new language, with a new family, I decided to write down some of the firsts – some of the things, no matter how big or seemingly small, that will have marked my entire stay in Spain:

 

  1. I went to Seville, Spain. A couple of friends and I took a 7 hour bus and stayed the long weekend in Seville. It was a marvelous city that I could best describe as being like Disney World – orange and palm trees every ten feet, castles filling the sky, smell of churros filling the air, thousands of people from all ethnicities crowding the cobblestone streets, and everybody speaking in English. It was a surreal town with a lot to offer.    
  2. I had my first lecture and “office hours” with a Spanish professor. I never really considered that I would be integrated into the Spanish academic institution. To my surprise, instead of being a tourist visitor in classes at the local university, I was a name, a person, a real student, sitting among a hundred local Spaniards learning about the psychology of groups.
  3. I watched my first “real football” game in a Spanish soccer bar with five spanish friends. Not only do I never watch soccer, but they don’t teach you soccer vocabulary in class, or proper soccer etiquette (of which there seems to be none). For the first time in my life, I felt like a true outsider, barely understanding a word being shouted across the table as the owner of the bar played Barcelona’s victory song over the loudspeakers for the third time.
  4. I went to a Spanish play. My mom invited me to watch her brother perform in a play. I accepted. I shocked myself at how much I enjoyed it – all three hours of it- accompanied only by two middle aged spanish women.
  5. I volunteer weekly at an Oxfam outlet (a fair-trade store). I sit there for three hours at a time selling fair-trade coffee and chocolates to passerbys and listen to (typical) Salmantino gossip of the town. It has been quite a “first” experience for me.
  6. I went to an eye doctor who didn’t speak English. Since I left my glasses at home, I had to get a new prescription (my eyes aren’t that bad, I just like to have them for class to read the board). I was so thankful for my 6th grade Spanish class as I was reciting the Spanish alphabet to the doctor, who was covering my left eye with a spoon.
  7. I visited a bull-fighting ring: La Plaza de Toros. Regardless of how you feel about this controversial sport, the history is just plain cool.

 

I think these very few “firsts” (and you can be sure I’m leaving out many) paint the most accurate depiction of my life over the last three weeks. It’s been pretty hard to tell about my “daily life” or “routine” here simply for the fact that every day has been a new adventure. There have surely been rough patches of adjustment, of cultural clashes, misunderstandings, and homesickness, but they have all been made insignificant by the beauty of each new day, filled with new and brilliant experiences that I am so privileged to unwrap.

All this being said, it can get pretty easy to adopt an egotistical perspective here. “Let me tell you all about my crazy awesome life, oh and by the way, your life has been probably on pause since I left home, right?” Well, to those of you who feel like us “abroaders” are ignorant to the challenges and joys of your daily life at home in the U.S., I apologize on our behalf. Truly. Although I want to continue to talk, text, and video-chat about my new and exciting adventures- my firsts – with people back home, I also want to hear about yours; because the truth is that life doesn’t stop just because we’re not there. I have learned over the past few weeks that it is just as hard to describe my experiences here as it is for my friends and family to tell me about their experiences at home – and thus is the abroad experience – people trying desperately, and often failing, to share with one another. I hope that with these small lines, I have shared something of my experience – and I await to hear of yours.

Best,

 

A Birthday In Spain

It all seemed so far off for so long – so distant – until that morning drive to the airport. I said goodbye to my dog, Charlie, to my sister, Caroline, and got in the car with my mother. She seemed to be a little distant, unable to acknowledge the ever-looming truth before us: her son was about to jump into the unknown. Upon arrival at the airport, I wasn’t quite sure if I was sleeping, dreaming, or painfully awake. All I know is that in one brief moment my mom had gone and I had come to realize two things: 1) I had no idea how to check a bag at the airport, and 2) I was on my way to Spain.

Thirteen hours of painstaking, sleepless travel later, and I was at an airport in Madrid. I was waiting for that moment that people always talk about; even as I was killing time in the airport, I was waiting for it. I was anticipating the panic, the “oh, this is really happening,” the attack of reason. After retrieving my lost luggage and drinking my first coffee ordered in Spanish, I sat in a chair waiting for the panic that never came; “they”, whoever they were, lied. There was no definitive moment of panicked dizziness, there was no regret, there was no “turn this plane around”. In fact, all of the feelings that I had anticipated for so long remained in deep sleep. I had surely felt them all, each and every spectrum of emotion, in the last few months, weeks, and days, but there in that moment, I was okay. My fear turned into a sure-footedness, and my anxiety turned into a flustered excitement (not unlike a feeling you might have right before a heart attack on a roller coaster). These feelings weren’t bad; I welcomed them. Despite what I had been telling my friends and family for months, I was finally truly excited to be in my position – to be sitting in a Madrid airport waiting to be bussed off to a new city, with a new language, with a new group of people, with a new family. I had finally arrived.

I have been in Salamanca for five days now. All the anxiety, the stress, the worry, all of the planning, has led to this: a moment of contentedness. In an almost poetic sort of way, I write this not to immediately share pictures of what my town looks like, not to tell you how much a beer costs, or how old the buildings are, but rather, I write as a confession. I write that I was wrong. I write because I never would have imagined that I would be sitting in a Spanish apartment, on my 21st birthday, excited to go out with friends that I made five days ago (who already want to buy me one). I never would have imagined an ever-changing and constantly new experience as being so outright exciting – not terrifying. Already I have experienced so much, dropped my jaw so many times, and awed at so many things, but nothing compares to the feeling that everything is okay, that I’m not dead, I’m not lost without hope, and actually, I’m really looking forward to being here.

Pictured above is Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, the most beautiful in Europe! This photo and more, although taken with my personal device, is available in a simple web search of “Salamanca”. Although my personal review of things here will surely come, today is not that day. And believe me, it’s a gorgeous city steeped in culture, history, and great food. However, the truth remains: all that and more you can find out on your own from photographers and travelers far better and more experienced than me. Today, I wanted to simply share that I am alive, I am well, and I am 21 in Salamanca, Spain.

Salud,