Monday, January 21, 2019

Off The Beaten Track: Chinchon

Chinchon, Spain

Copyright Tripwolf
The moment I stepped off the bus in Chinchon, the rain stopped. An hour later the first rays of sunshine broke through the cloud cover. I get the feeling things are like that here – serendipitous, or just outright lucky. They’d have to be.

For more than a thousand years, the tightly clustered homes have clung precariously to the hillside, baking through the summer months, and shivering through cold winters – victim to numerous migrations from Iberians to Romans and Visigoths to Moors.

At the doorstep of Madrid, Chinchon is only a forty-five minute bus ride to the south through rough hills rubbed raw and red-brown with pitted granite outcrops amid impossible olive groves. If you want to step back in time, this is the place to do it. Few places in Europe boast a Medieval village as well preserved. The trip is only 6.30 for a return ticket, and you can catch the buses on Avda. del Mediterraneo.

From the bus stop on the edge of town, I climbed the serpent-like streets toward the city centre. Without warning, the road unfolded onto an irregular-shaped plaza, surrounded on all sides by some two hundred and fifty lopsided, wooden balconies perched dangerously over restaurants and shops that stretched cavern-like back from the square. A portico on the far side opened mysteriously onto a footpath that quickly disappeared into a maze of streets. And even mid-week in early May, a few tables and chairs spilled into the plaza sheltered by lively-coloured umbrellas.

Above the plaza, the skyline is dominated by the Renaissance Church of the Assumption and the town’s famous Clock Tower. The pastel-coloured Lope de Vega Theatre is also visible to the left of the church. Oddly, over the church altar is a masterpiece by Goya, whose brother once served as chaplain here.

Upon my arrival, the Meson de la Virreina beckoned, and I enjoyed a cold cerveca served up in a white porcelain stein, with a plate of olives on the side. Indoors, I was able to view the array of tapas available, from roasted peppers and tripe, to Spanish sausage and broad beans. A tiled sign on the outside wall tells diners that this was once the house where the bullfighter "Franscuela" convalesced after a brutal goring.

Once again serendipity had struck the town, as he and other toreros since him, have organized a yearly Bullfight Festival in a make-shift corrida in the middle of the Plaza Mayor. The week-long event draws tens of thousands of madrillenos each season, and balcony owners make a fortune renting out the prime seats. The festival takes place in mid-August, although you can get a taste for what’s to come on July 25th when Chinchon celebrates the feast of St. James.

After browsing through the shops, which capitalise on the local artisanry of metal working and pottery, I left the plaza for the castle further up the hill. In ruins now, it was once a formidable fortress built to stay the Moors from Toledo. You can still walk around the walls and admire the lofty views of the town and surrounding countryside. 

Down from the castle is the Hotel Parador, once an Augustinian Monastery, and now the best place to stay in Chinchon. The Parador offers thirty-eight modern rooms and two suites, as well as a small restaurant. Rates start at 200 a night for a double. I visited the Cloisters, which are open to the public and offer a small quiet place to sit and contemplate your journey.

But if your intent is not to stay, and all you can spare is an afternoon, buses pass every hour by the Convent of the Poor Clare Nuns at the foot of the town, ready to drag you from the sleepy rural landscape and slip you back into the quickened pace of Madrid’s city life.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Protest, Propaganda, and Politics: Welcome to the World Cup

Since June 14th, when Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0, more than 3 billion people have tuned in to the FIFA World Cup. Germany was upset by the feisty Mexicans. England has demonstrated uncommon good form. And the once mighty Argentines are floundering.  The globe is ball and everyone is watching it.
                But it’s not all about football. Nor has it ever been.
                As it stands, two players and a coach could possibly be suspended over gestures made during the Swiss victory over Serbia.  At issue is the “double eagle” displayed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri following their respective goals. Players celebrate in many creative ways—some suck their thumbs, some remove their shirts, some make heart symbols with their hands, and others use the universal “simmer down” motion. Ronaldo recently rubbed his chin to tell the world that he is “the goat.”
                But the double eagle has ignited a controversy.
                At the heart of this hullabaloo, is FIFA rule number 54:  Provoking the general public.  The rule is simple, leaving a gaping hole into which pundits and fans can throw any number of infractions, both real and imagined.  It reads, “Anyone who provokes the general public during a match will be suspended for two matches and sanctioned with a minimum fine of CHF 5,000.”
                So, what’s wrong with the double eagle? Well, Xhaka and Shaqiri, while Swiss, are also Kosovars with ethnic Albanian roots. As such, their gesture—which refers to the Albanian flag—has been interpreted by some as the goading of their Serbian opponents and the fans in the stadium.
                Kosovo, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and though its independence is recognized by more than 113 member states of the UN, Serbia is not one of them.  This has unearthed the decades-old Kosovo War where Serbian troops were responsible for the ethnic cleansing (terrible euphemism) of more than 10 000 Kosovars. Reciprocal atrocities were also committed, displacing 200 000 Serbs and Romani.
                But enough of history. At issue is the politics of the gesture and its intent. 
                I can’t help but draw comparisons the the recent storm around the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick and “knee-taking” during the American anthem.  Many say that politics has no place sport. Others argue freedom of expression.

                So, should Xhaka and Shaqiri be suspended, potentially affecting the outcome of the group stage of the World Cup?
                Ultimately, I say no. Just think about the nature of the World Cup for a moment. It pits nation against nation. The spectators drape themselves in flags, paint their faces and bodies in national colours.  Iceland fans wear the Viking helmets of old.  Brazilian fans wear…well, almost nothing.
                In this kind of atmosphere, how can you keep the World Cup free of politics?
                Serb captain, Aleksandar Kolarov, lifted three fingers in the “Serb salute” after he scored a goal against Costa Rica. Should he be suspended for what some consider to be a “nationalist” gesture?
                Forcing players to “behave” in this way is simply reinforcing a wilful ignorance of the issues facing the world—a kind of self-induced coma. FIFA wishes and hopes for this sort momentary amnesia, not for the sake of the “beautiful game,” but because it is part and parcel of ignoring the issues raised by the very selection of such countries as Russia and Qatar to host the games. Countries whose records of human rights abuses should arguably not be rewarded with the World Cup prize to begin with.
                If the gestures of Xhaka and Shaqiri—or even those of Kolarov—spark debate and discussion, this can only be a good thing. In fact, most of the 3 billion viewers probably had no idea what the “double eagle” meant before the Swiss players used it. And maybe that was the intent. Or, maybe the intent was simply one of solidarity following years of hardship.
                In the end, as long as the intent and impact did not purposefully engender hatred or prejudice (such as paramilitary insignia and flags in the crowd!), then play on.
                Serbia, and impartial aficionados of the game, have a much more legitimate complaint with the officiating of that match than they do with any gestures used. The Serbs deserved a penalty shot, and VAR review should and would have proven what the referee inexplicably “missed.”
                Let’s not pretend that politics don’t exist.  Embrace them. Discuss them. And get on with the game.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Language and the Art of Travel

The Sacred Valley, Peru

Photography by Caroline Begeron

We met Eduardo straight off the plane in Cusco. Our B&B had sent him to pick us up. He was sixty-years-old and had been driving taxi in the city most of his adult life. He did not speak English. Eduardo was Quechan, so we met halfway and struck up a conversation in Spanish on our way across the city.  He was funny and gregarious and he knew just about everything about Cusco. I asked him how much it would cost to hire his taxi for an entire day.  We had come to climb Machu Picchu, but we hoped to visit the Sacred Valley, too.

Cusco Peru
We struck a deal (for less than half the price of a bus tour—for one). On the day prescribed, Eduardo picked us up at 5 in the morning.  We set out into the hills north of the city, whisking past several different Incan ruins in quick succession—Q'enko, Tambomachay, Puca Puchara. On any given day, one of these stops would have been enough. Peru is an embarrassment of riches. We immediately began to make plans with Eduardo for yet another day upon our return from Machu Picchu.

Sacred Valley Cusco Peru
He asked if we would like to see llamas, and then promptly took us to a small weaving coop just off the main road.  Women in colourful traditional dress worked at ponchos and shawls on hand looms. 

He took us to Pisac—the ruins and the market--then he chose us a cheap place to eat near Urubamba. 

Ollantaytambo, our next stop, was beyond words. Impressive in its sheer scale and impossible crafted stonework. We stayed too long, enthralled by it all. We simply didn’t want to leave. 

And all along the way Eduardo told us stories, answered our questions. He joked with us and told us what to watch out for, what to avoid. He was the consummate host.

Inca Valley Peru

It was so late as we left Ollantaytambo that we figured we must forgo our final stop at Chinchero.  As we passed up higher into the mountains, the sun was disappearing behind the distant peaks, lighting the snow-capped chain behind us.  Eduardo pulled over so Caroline could catch the display on camera. After, we thanked him and bid him return to Cusco. We understood the lateness of the day. No tour could have packed in the itinerary the way we had. Nothing would have been as personal.  But Eduardo would have none of it.

Inca Valley Peru

Inca Valley Peru

It was dark as we pulled into the Adobe Church in Chinchero. Women were still spaced out around the plaza weaving colourful blankets as the lights in the church came on. The experience was visually surreal. We felt lucky. We felt privileged. We couldn’t thank (or pay) Eduardo enough.

Adobe Church Peru

However, several hours later, once we were safely tucked into our beds at the Second Home Cusco, I remember thinking that I owed it all—the experience, our burgeoning friendship with Eduardo—all of it, to language.

Of all the things I have learned in life, be they from schools and universities or the experience of living and working in the world, nothing has been more rewarding or defining than language.

By technical definition, I suppose that I am a polyglot. I speak three languages with fluency (English, French, Spanish), and I have working knowledge of a fourth (Portuguese). Through travel, study, and simple interest, I have managed to pick up smatterings of German, Italian, and Russian, as well—though I pull the latter out in case of emergency only, or perhaps as party tricks under the right “influence.”

I did not set out to make this so. Language was not part of a master plan enacted years ago under misguided notions of world domination. In fact, beyond my native English, French is the only language that I have studied at school and university for any length of time.  Spanish came organically through travel, necessity, and personal effort; Portuguese has been a recent experiment.

But no matter how it occurred, nothing I have ever learned has brought me more satisfaction, presented more opportunities, or allowed me to live more fully than language. On a personal level, it has changed the course of my life. My wife (a francophone), my children (bilingual, both), my career (as a teacher of English, French, and Spanish), have all been defined and shaped by language.

However, I also believe that language is the common ground upon which the world can build understanding. No small claim, I know. But I empathise with why a sovereignist from Quebec longs for separation--even if I don't agree. When I hear the first few lines of "Nicaragua, Nicaraguita" I feel a pang of homesickness. And I'm not Nicaraguan.

We met Eduardo two more times after our tour of the Sacred Valley. On the second last day of our trip, he took us to Sacsayhuaman and several other Incan sites encircling the city. And on our final full day, he took us to the Mantay Home for Adolescent Mothers, where we dropped off donations and spent the afternoon with the women and children staying there. They showed us how they were making fair trade crafts and receiving an education for themselves and their children. Once again, it was the ability to connect through language that made the day so memorable and complete.

It was difficult, after only a few hours, to say goodbye to the mothers at Mantay. And it was difficult, after only a few days, to say goodbye to Eduardo the next morning at the airport.

These are good things. They are the measure of an experience's impact.

Language opens doors to rooms we didn't even know existed. All we have to do after is walk through.