lunes, 1 de julio de 2013

Tales of toloache and mexican magic

"So" I asked "You guys really don't have any herb or magical spell that is used to make someone fall in love with you?"

My Dutch colleague stared skeptically back, as if I was out of my mind and asking silly questions. I couldn't understand why my question seemed odd and insisted.
"Seriously, I'm not making this up. It's common knowledge in Mexico, folklore or an old wives' tale if you will, that to make someone fall in love with you, you slip toloache in their food and it's done, they fall head over heels for you."

No, unheard of. But Google, Google would surely have the answer so I typed something like "magic to fall in love Netherlands" in my search bar. All I got back from Google were a bunch of articles and a few ads for amphetamines and ecstasy, what Google seems to interpret as the Dutch recipe to make people magically fall in love with each other.

Magic and superstitions are part of every day life in Mexico. In fact, much to my surprise I discovered last week that magic is such an everyday topic that toloache is sold at the Saturday market, right between a fruit stand and a candy stand. I approached the stall and scrolled through the merchandise: magic herbs, talismans and even holy water in an aerosol can, for your urgent blessing needs. I asked the vendor about toloache. Just like unicorns and other mythical creatures, toloache was this thing I had heard stories about but I had never actually seen in real life. The stuff of legends, right there, hanging innocently between bananas and Barbie dresses. Out of some sort of Robert Ripley-ian passion for oddities, I bought a small envelope of toloache for 20 mexican pesos and asked how it was supposed to be used. The vendor explained that I should use a small amount of the powder, just the tip of a small spoon, and put it in the food of whoever I wished to make fall in love. Not more, because it could be harmful, not less because it wouldn't work. And while mixing the toloache with the food, I should say a spell to make the magic work.

Toloache, according to Wikipedia, comes from a plant called Datura inoxia which is occasionally grown for ornamental purposes as it gives beautiful white flowers that smell pleasantly at night. Datura, however, also produces highy toxic alkaloids which happen to have the property of inducing delirium, a state in which one is unable to differentiate fantasy from reality. Upon ingestion of toloache, increased heart rate and increased body temperature are accompanied by an assortment of neurological symptoms such as amnesia, pain relief, bizarre behaviour and hallucinations, which I'm not really sure if you can argue are similar to falling in love or not. Either way, both acute and chronic use of toloache may harm and kill the brain neurons (neurotoxicity), cause intoxication and even lead to death. While you could think that wanting to love and be loved by someone is an understandable human need, poisoning the person that you want to fall in love with you is in general a dick move.

My sole intention being to have the toloache as an oddity for display, I was quite happy with my purchase. I thanked the vendor and put the envelope in my purse.
But she then added "That's only if you want to make someone fall in love. If you really want to make someone fall crazy in love because you want to get married, then before adding it to the food, you first have to mix the toloache with your menstrual blood. Works like a charm."

domingo, 23 de junio de 2013

Km 47,748: The unbearable relativeness of kilometers and the mortality of crabs

The internet warned me about this. Driving in Costa Rica isn't easy.

Despite what I could define as driving expertise as a consequence of thousands of hours spent driving in Mexico City, sorting out gargantuan traffic jams, floods and potholes, I am just a amateur in Costa Rica. We have spent the last two days in a driving destruction spree that, in addition to the increasing lack of precision of the metric system the closer you go towards the coast, are likely to push me to having a stroke before the week is over.

It all started when Luisandoval and I landed in San Jose and decided to take some money at a bank. I parked the car and was kindly asked by the guy taking care of the parking lot to move the car to another spot. So I did, and he kindly asked me to move it again so that it was facing the other way around. So I did, but then failed at my first attempt at backing up into that space. By then I had lost my cool and in my second attempt, I backed up into one of the traffic cones that was marking the edges of the parking space, caught it in one of the back wheels and essentially destroyed it in his face.

With some money in my pocket and some shame on my face, we left the bank and headed towards Puerto Limon and from there to Cahuita, on the caribbean coast. We took a road through the jungle, in between the mountains, which was initially wonderful as the mountains looked beautiful covered with mist. The stuff of movies: centenarian trees surrounding the road, waterfalls by the sides of the road and enough green everywhere to make your eyes hurt. However, things started turning sour when a tropical storm hit us and the road filled up with slow-moving vehicles headed in our same direction.

After an hour of driving behind trucks through the mountains at 60 km/h, desperately wiping the windshield every half-second or so, we saw a sign: "Puerto Limon 87 km". At this speed, we would be there in an hour and a half, so well before sunset. We felt encouraged and drove another fifteen minutes, listening to music and chatting. There we saw another sign: "Puerto Limon 87 km". This seemed a bit strange, we were pretty sure that we had gone further at least 10 km since the last sign, but perhaps we were mistaken. We played some more music, drove on another 20 minutes and then saw another sign: "Limon 87 km".

We weren't driving in circles nor were we on the wrong road, so what was wrong? Is the metric system in Costa Rica different? Do kilometers become longer the closer you are to the coast? Were we caught in some sort of Costa Rican Bermuda Triangle? We turned the music off and continued driving for ten more minutes and then finally saw the next sign: "Puerto Limon 85 km". We had probably driven more than 2 km since the last sign but after 45 minutes of being 87 km away from Puerto Limin, the spell was broken and we seemed to be getting out of the Triangle. We were looking forward to our next sign, which came up five minutes later; "Puerto Limon 87 km".

After 87 neverending km of curves and dusty traffic jams, we arrived to Puerto Limon around sunset. I decided my nerves were sufficiently wrecked for a single day and Luisandoval took over the wheel. He was in for a treat: if I had had a hard time driving on a main road during day time, he would have to drive on a smaller one at night. This supposes two extra difficulties: low visibility due to lack of illumination and the herds of crabs that take over the road at sunset.

It was an unavoidable crab genocide. Thousands of them covered the road and while Luisandoval did his best to avoid running them over (unlike the car ahead of us, who was a crab-killing maniac and made sure to get as many as possible), we eventually closed the windows to stop hearing the crushing of shells.

One hour later, we finally arrived to Cahuita. Tired, stressed and psychologically scarred from the experience, we're ready to enjoy the Costa Rican caribbean "pura vida".

domingo, 16 de junio de 2013

Km 45,665: Twenty four hours of tacos, earthquakes and tequila

Most of my delayed flight was spent in a coma, from which I only rose when we were coming close to Mexico City. Flying into Mexico City at night is a spectacular show; it would seem as if a never-ending cloth of light stretches out to the horizon, covering mountains and valleys. Light drips down the streets and avenues like blood through arteries and veins, bringing Mexico City to life.

Migration, luggage, customs and, after nine months of absence, an endearing re-encounter with my parents who were exhausted from a two hour long wait at the airport. In honor of stereotypes, our first stop was a taquería to eat some tacos. Having spent the previous night awake in a party and the entire day and most of the evening sleeping on the airplane, I was in circadian confusion and, by the time we went back home, I dragged myself to bed, laid my head to rest and closed my eyes. I felt so excited to be back in Mexico City, it almost seemed like I was shaking.

But then I realized, I was. And so was the bed. And the ground. And then the cars honking outside warned me that the entire city was shaking due to a trepidatory earthquake. The Papalote Children's Museum of Mexico City has taught me several things, including how one can safely rest on a bed of nails and how bubbles work, but one thing that really stayed with me (and will essentially haunt me the rest of my life) is the danger of trepidatory earthquakes. As an innocent and sweet nine year old, I went to the Museum and found a stand where you could build a house with wooden cubes and then simulate an earthquake. I made a house and simulated an oscillatory earthquake (moving horizontally). My house held for a good 20 seconds before crumbling. I then made another house and simulated a trepidatory earthquake (moving vertically), which didn't last more than a few seconds. I tried again, a different design, but it fell again almost instantly, teaching me that trepidatory earthquakes are far more destructive than oscillatory ones. Although there are a few man-made buildings and structures out there, capable of resisting oscillatory earthquakes, no engineer has been able to come up with a design that could resist a trepidatory earthquake. In other words, if you're in the middle of a trepidatory earthquake, in all likelihood the building is going to shake in an up and downwards motion until it collapses, crushing you underneath it.

In my mind, at least.

But as soon as I realized there was an earthquake, I jumped out of bed and ran around in panic, staring at the hanging lamps to see if they were moving, while shouting to wake up my parents. We waited off the earthquake under the frame of a door while a few neighbors ran outside bare feet in their pijamas. There is much debate about what are the correct earthquake safety measures. In school, we were taught that in the event of an earthquake, we had to crouch and hide under our desks. However, the urban legend says that rather than being a life-saving measure, this is a sentence to death as rescuers are said to have found entire classrooms of children crushed to death under their desks after an earthquake. The somewhat dubious triangle of life theory says that one is to crouch next to a sturdy and tall object, so that when the ceiling or the sky falls on it, it will leave a small triangular space under which we can hide. 

The only thing that is clear to me is that the 1985 earthquake and all the entailed destruction left behind a scar in the collective consciousness of all Mexicans. As soon as the earthquake is over, we all need to make sure that everyone else is alright, leading to the collapse of all telephone lines and networks. Facebook and Twitter are actually the fastest ways to discover if the earthquake was felt in other areas of the city and what kind of damage did other people suffer. The National Institute of Seismology has caught on to this and within a few minutes tweeted that we had just experienced a 5.9 earthquake on Richter's scale. Other tweets confirmed that it had initially been trepidatory and then changed to oscillatory and that no major damages happened in the city. Still, hard to go back to sleep with your eyes peeled.

The next morning was spent at the market. While my parents bought fruit and vegetables at the market, I spent a few minutes inspecting a stand where esoteric articles and magic herbs were sold. We came back home with a full load of mangoes, papaya, mamey, peaches, bananas, apples, pears, strawberries, melon, watermelon, plums, jicama, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, avocado, asparagus, cucumber, celery, pumpkin flowers and nopales (see food porn, below).

And finally, we went to the terrace to sip some tequila.

sábado, 15 de junio de 2013

Km 42,654: Washington's half-baked stories

I'm sitting in a waiting room at the Washington Dulles airport, waiting for my flight to Mexico. The aircraft has only just landed but needs to be cleaned and inspected before we can board. Another 45 minute delay or so.

It's been almost a year and 50'000 km since I started writing this blog. Even though I have been a neglectful blogger and didn't update as much as I would have wanted to, I have enjoyed the traveling as much as the writing and hope to be able to continue for another couple of years (or more). There are a number of half-written stories sitting in my drafts, waiting to be finished and published for once and for all.

I hope that the next few weeks will bring a lot of belated updates from places visited in the last few months (Udine, Geneva, Paris) but also a few stories from new places visited (Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain and my big fat greek wedding in Athens), not to mention new adventures with Julia during the Vierdaagse. So, stay posted.

jueves, 2 de mayo de 2013

Km 34,935 : Monarchy-derived anarchy in Amsterdam

Despite what Fox News may be spoon-feeding its audience, I wouldn't describe the Netherlands as a land of sin and chaos. I'd say the Netherlands is more like a land of jolly people who like to carry things on their bicycles and enjoy milk and sandwiches for lunch. Except on April 30th, the one officially authorized and celebrated day per year of rampage and havoc throughout the Netherlands. Every year on April 30th, the Dutch would morph into orange rampage-prone monsters and destroy their urban habitats by burying the city under plastic glasses and empty cans of beer. All this to celebrate Queen Beatrix's birthday.

Beatrix's birthday is in fact in January but the Dutch, practical creatures, have come to terms with the reality that weather in the Netherlands is often too snowy and generally inadequate to have the people embark on proper royal birthday celebrations in January. Instead, Queen's day was celebrated at the end of April, a better weather-prone date. Sadly, Queen Beatrix announced her abdication in January 2013, to let Willem Alexander, her eldest son, step up to the throne. Thus, April 30th 2013 would be the last Queen's day and as such, would have to be the biggest and most orange birthday party ever. Known worldwide for being extremely liberal and multi-culti, the Dutch seem to embrace with equal enthusiasm legalized (and taxed!) prostitution and regulated (and taxed!) sale of marijuana as they celebrate the investiture of the new king.

The celebration started a few days before April 30th, with the mass sale of orange paraphernalia to show your support for the royal house of Oranje-Nassau (whose color as you may have guessed by the name is, indeed, orange). Orange t-shirts, orange blow-up crowns, orange flags and, of course, orange hamburgers for your barbequeue.

Literally, the King's burgers. Monarch-approved beef for only €1.35...

A few days later, by the time we had our orange gear ready, on April 30th, Queen Beatrix became once again Princess Beatrix by signing an abdication document in Amsterdam and the crown prince Willem-Alexander became King Willem-Alexander. A sea of people flowed into Amsterdam. Some came to cheer for their new monarch. Some came to spend an agreeable day at the park with their family, skipping rope with other fellow orange-fevered Dutchmen and trading all sorts of junk at the Queen's day flea market. Others, with lower ideals, just went to Amsterdam to dance and drink beer.

Grown men dressed in orange rope-skipping and some guys who bought a bed at the flea market, to dance on it to the sound of the ever-present oompa-pa music.

While we didn't see that many people on the train to Amsterdam, we did have to fight the masses once we got out of the train station. We fought the masses on Museumsplein to catch a glimpse of the investiture of King Wilhelm-Alexander on the giant screens. We fought the masses to get a chance to pee and then for lunch. And finally, we decided to stop fighting the masses and just climb on a bus where a DJ was playing and dance. We enjoyed the last rays of sunshine while sitting in the middle of a street, tried to hitch a boat ride on the canals (but the captain was apparently too drunk to maneuver and almost crashed into another boat) and then we danced some more in the midst of a electronic music war between two DJs on the opposite sides of the street. The exhausting trip back home was surprisingly tranquil up unto the train station in Arnhem, where apparently half of Nijmegen's population and their mother had been partying. The short trip between Arnhem and Nijmegen was done with a colorfully drunk and loud crowd dressed with torn orange capes, broken orange crowns and dirty orange hats. The party must have been quite good as well in Arnhem.

The masses from below, in between and above (once we got on the bus)

All in all, the last Queen's day in the Netherlands was fun. It's some sort of exercise in Dutch integration because it actually doesn't matter if you're Dutch or not or whether you are a firm supporter of the Dutch Royal house. It's about whether you are willing to be part of something by putting on something orange to dance and drink beer with the liberal, multi-culti, maybe monarchy-supporting crowd who otherwise regularly enjoys steep stairs, bizarrely accurate gift cards for all occasions and cursing you with diseases. Queen's day was epic, but I can only wonder if King's day in 2014 will have the same oomph. 

But yes, there's only one way to find that out.

miércoles, 17 de abril de 2013

High expectations in Budapest's guts

Subways are a fascinating thing. In a way, they are the guts of a city and, with thousands of people moving everyday through them, they are a reflection of the character of the city and its inhabitants.

The urban legend says that under the soviet regime, it was considered that public places and notably, public transport systems, had to be public palaces to reflect the greatness of the Party. Old soviet republics inherited majestic metro systems from this idea, including the legendary Moscow metro, which is decorated with chandeliers, carpet and marble columns. I prefer the other ones, the ones that contain this intriguing subterraneous world within the dark and dusty tunnels. I like the versatile ones, like Paris' metro, in which whenever you wander beyond the touristic and modern ligne 1 (created to ensure that tourists move safely between the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and Notre-Dame), you might find yourself in a banlieue trying very hard not to look at anyone in the eye. I like chaotic ones, like Mexico City's metro, in which you can buy anything ranging from children's books to learn mathematics, to CDs with the best 500 salsa songs ever and granola bars, provided you're carrying 10 pesos with you. I like the filthy ones, like New York's gritty subway system in which a ride at 3 am is a memorable experience which may be accompanied by people in dinosaur outfits, wannabe-America's got talent stars, enthusiastic and drunk extroverts, random street musicians and a homeless man with his pants around his ankles. Those subways are the good ones: the ones with the greasy walls, with the bizarre urban characters and the intrigue of not knowing exactly who lives or what happens in the tunnels. Those are the ones that exhale life as it flows in the city.

Not long before my trip to Budapest, I watched Kontroll, a Hungarian movie about ticket controllers in Budapest's subway system. Granted, it may sound like ticket controllers in Budapest's subway system is a very specific topic, a niche if you will, catering only the most pretentious art-cinema aficionados. Except, it's not. Actually, Kontroll is a very good movie with a fairly simple but unusual plot, which follows every day life of a group of seemingly unpleasant ticket controllers who in fact turn out to be much more pleasant than they seem. There's something for everyone in this movie: a good plot, interesting characters, grim scenery, a dark atmosphere and people being pushed in front of the subway. But enough movie recommendations, I will shush my inner hipster now. All I want to say is that after watching Kontroll, I was looking forward to using the Budapest metro with all its grimness and character.

So there I was, absolutely disappointed to see that Budapest's subway is rather nice. The oldest and most touristic line, crossing the city from east to west is Line 1, is an incredibly cute train similar to a ride from Disneyland. It's only missing the funfair music in the background. As for the other two lines, they are somewhat old, in somewhat need for maintenance and repairs, but otherwise missing the drunk ticket controllers and people running through the tunnels. One thing I did notice and that was just as in the movie, were the extremely long staircases leading to the outside world, as if they were slowly taking you out of hell and back into the real world.

miércoles, 3 de abril de 2013

Km 34,031: The twisted islanders of Texel

Islands are the stuff nightmares are made of. Not the big ones like Australia or Greenland (which I recently learned, in a reverse case of "objects in the mirror being closer than they seem", is actually much smaller than it appears on the map). I'm talking about the really small ones, the ones you can hardly discern on the map and force you to squint and wonder if they're really there, brushing off imaginary crumbs from the map. Those are the scary ones: the lonely, deserted and almost unpopulated islands. Stephen King, the Lord of everything that is terrifying, was perfectly aware of this when he wrote, not just a short story or a book, but the script for a four hour long movie about what happens when people are trapped on a small island and go batshit crazy ("the Storm of the century"). Not to mention another group of imaginative people who kept us on our toes for a couple of years, spoon-feeding us horror stories about the adventures of a bunch of people being hunted down by a smoke monster and polar bears living on a tropical fantasy island in the middle of nowhere. I mean "Lost", of course, and its writers, whose heartlessness is illustrated by the fact they fooled a substantial amount of people (myself included) into wasting six years of our lives watching a series that wasn't actually going anywhere. The final episode of Lost left me with the feeling that I had just been dumped at the altar by a television series and I still have problems committing to watching other series after this betrayal. I ditched the Walking Dead as soon as I saw it losing its flavor and sassiness. Ain't nobody got time for that.

My point is that there is something inherently scary about being on a small island because you are isolated and vulnerable to whatever natural or supernatural evil lurks on this land that you are trapped on.

But no, Texel is nothing like that. Texel is the delightful island in the north of the Netherlands where Dutch people go to enjoy a sunny day during the summer. Measuring about 20 km from top to bottom and 8 km across, Texel is the motherland of the wooly and delicious Texel sheep. In fact,  if you show up in early spring and are lucky enough, you might be able to join for the "newborn lamb gazing"-themed 40 km hike across the island. Additionally, with almost one third of its surface being a natural protected area dedicated to restoration of the environment, Texel functions as a sandy sanctuary for mythical Dutch beasts such as wild geese, baby seals(!) and porpoises. And when the end of the day approaches, one can go to the Northern tip of the island to see the lighthouse and enjoy the sunset, while digging your toes in the sand. Nothing wrong with Texel, it's a wonderful place with lovely inhabitants living in peaceful harmony, both animal and human.
Texel beach on the north tip of the island.
That is until a couple of years ago, when a dead fox appeared on the islands, causing furor in local newspapers and much worry among the people of Texel. 

You see, the group of Frisian islands to which Texel belongs is the natural habitat for a lot of birds (in fact, the northern tip of Texel used to be a separate island called Eierland or "the land of the eggs"). Foxes are not, as the "Little Prince" may have led you to believe, cute creatures that can be domesticated by sitting progressively closer to them. Foxes are tbe type of  beasts that break into farms and decapitate half of the chicken living there, causing the other half to die from a heart attack. Foxes would be something akin to the smoke monster of any bird living on Texel, predating on bird eggs and just generally ruining life on the island. Happily for the birds, foxes are usually not found on the island (and happily for the rest of Texel's population, neither are smoke monsters). 

Thus, a fox corpse on the island represented some sort of post mortem incarnation of fear for the nature-loving people of Texel. Were their peaceful and harmonic lives at a stake? If foxes were to invade the island, would smoke monsters follow? Would Eierland be no more? Finally, a team of scientists came up with not one, but two answers after an autopsy. First, that the fox had been shot, as some shotgun pellets were found in its body. Second, somewhat tranquilizing, yet disturbing: among the contents of the fox's stomach were some beetles, found only in the southern and eastern parts of the Netherlands but not on Texel. This implied that the fox had eaten mainland beetles before being shot, thus that it had been on the mainland shortly before being shot and that, consequently, it was probably also shot in the mainland and then brought to Texel. Now, why would anyone shoot a fox and go through the trouble of taking its body across the sea only to dump it somewhere on the island? Apparently, the very serious conclusion of the study was that, as there are seemingly not enough things to do in Texel, people have to find alternative means of entertainment by hunting foxes and dumping them on the other side of the sea just to scare the shit out of the rest of the people on the island.

I told you. There is something inherently scary about small islands.

I call this one "Texel landscape with delightful company"

lunes, 11 de marzo de 2013

Km 30,149: Death in Buda. Life again in Pest

Honestly speaking, I'm not much of a travelling party animal. I have always tended to be a bit shy when it comes to exploring nightlife in unfamiliar cities and I think I might have wasted my youth away by missing out on the Wild On! experience of intense spring-breaking. But never again.

I recently vanquished my (other) white whale of travel frustrations by persuading some delightful company into coming to Budapest with me. After many failed attempts at setting a foot in Hungary, I wanted to be ready for this trip. I read Wikitravel and the Couchsurfing forums, looking for insider tips and ideas on what to visit and do in Budapest. I read about goulash, I read about hungarian and how different it is from indo-european languages, I read about the traditional hungarian thermal baths ... and then, I found out about "sparties". Sparties (a not-so-obvious portemanteau between spa and party) or "Magic Bath Parties" are parties that are thrown in the thermal baths, aimed mostly at drunken foreigners (but drunken locals also seem to be more than welcome).

The night begins a bit hesitantly. We meet a few Couchsurfers at what seems to be a random tram stop on the bridge over Margitsziget, an island in the middle of the Danube. Meeting up with people that you don't know is always awkward, because you're never really sure what they look like. I stare at them, squinting and trying to recognize them from their profile picture (idiotically, because I only remember details from their profile picture which are perfectly useless, like the fact that in the picture they were eating a gigantic pizza). After you manage to make eye contact, there is that half second of uncertainty, until someone slips "Hi! Are you from Couchsurfing?". An increasingly diverse group of people gathers. Two Swedes who carry around a cardboard box which they insist is a portable bar. A french guy who tells us the story of how he spent a drunken night as one of Budapest's homeless sleeping on the streets because he couldn't find his way back home. A polish girl with a floater. A random assortment of Greeks, Americans, Spaniards... all international students.

Some sips of wine later, we're ready to head to the bath where the party will be held. By day, the bath is a rather sterile place intended for people with rheumatic disorders to soak their pains away. By night, lights, steam, electronic music and a bar by the pool transform the bath, maybe not into a Magic Bath, but at least into a Pretty Cool Bath. We slip into our swimsuits, buy a beer and dip a toe into the deliciously warm water. It's a bit decadent, but we're caught in a whirlpool of drunken people swirling around in the swimming pool and don't really care. We swirl around for a few minutes and meet again the french guy, who is making a small fortune by diving into the pool to collect money that was lost by party-goers in the whirling. The night blurs as the music becomes louder, the lights are brighter and more and more people join at the swimming pool. 

I wake up to a throbbing headache, as if someone had axed me in the head yesterday, as I was leaving the party. My eyes feel hard to open, I'm not sure if it is because of the bright sunshine sneering at us from outside or just because my eyes are crusty. The inside of my body feels dirty with the toxic products of alcohol breakdown and the remaining half-metabolized alcohol still running around my bloodstream. My mouth tastes rancid and I stink. In fact, our entire room stinks due to the two hungover corpses sleeping in it.

Water, ibuprofen, sleep. Rinse and repeat.

The second attempt at waking up goes a bit better and is soon accompanied by a resurrection shower and a kebab for brunch. We decide to soak away our problems at the Szechenyi baths for the rest of the day and, since we're being so decadent anyway, we might as well get a massage.

The Szechenyi baths are on the side of Pest, in a gigantic yellow complex built in the beginning of last century. It is Sunday and the bath is full with wrinkly old couples, young couples, families who come to spend the day here and soak alternatively in warm and cold water. We skip the cold water altogether and wallow in the warm pools. We gloat in the sauna. And by the time the sun sets again, we're back to life.

domingo, 10 de febrero de 2013

Km 28,806: My friend was kidnapped by a prisoner and a sleeping bag in Oeteldonk

The Dutch enjoy carrying all sorts of things on their bicycle, including furniture and people. In fact, carrying another person on your bike is a sign of fondness in the Netherlands, an honor reserved for the cyclist's offspring, girlfriend or close friends. However, if your relationship with a Dutch person hasn't reached the point where you could be taken for a ride on their bicycle, they might just hand you a greeting card for any random occasion for which you could imagine a greeting card being made. "Happy swimming diploma Janneke! We got you a card!"... yes, the card for such occasions does exist. 

As a foreigner living now for a couple of years in the Netherlands, I sometimes think that Dutch people have weird habits. In addition to their bizarre displays of affection, another activity that the Dutch seem to enjoy very much are festivities that result in urban destruction. I mean Carnival, of course, where people dress in elaborate costumes, binge drink in public and then proceed to more or less destroy the city they live in. Carnival is a catholic festicity and is therefore celebrated mostly in the south of the Netherlands. If you want to take part in the whole thing, your best shot within the Netherlands is probably Maastricht or Den Bosch. So this year, we decided to go to Den Bosch (or Oeteldonk as it is known during Carnival).

Oeteldonkers take their carnival seriously. They decorate the city in red-white-yellow (the colors from the flag of Oeteldonk), put their boerenkiels on (blue vests traditionally used by farmers), play the Oeteldonk anthem and celebrate their royalty and its entourage. And just in case you hadn't noticed it yet, despite the fact that it has a flag, an anthem and some sort of political leader which could lead you to believe that it's a sovereign state, Oeteldonk is actually not even a real place. 

You may have seen the carnival pictures from Rio de Janeiro, with essentially naked people dancing in Sambadromes covered with gold and feathers. This is nothing like that. Here, it's cold or, if you're unlucky, you might find yourself in the middle of a small blizzard which will persuade you of the importance of heavy drinking (if the horrible music hadn't done so yet).  After wandering through the city, drinking a beer here and there, trying to keep our fingers and toes safe from frostbite, we decided to go into a heated bar. We made it in and pushed our way to the back and there, while we were standing right by the line for the toilet, we had the real carnival experience. We tried some Schrobbelèr, sang the "Shoop shoop" song with Boy George, made friends with Cleopatra and by the time we were fully integrated in Oeteldonk society, we were pushed out of the bar. I came back on a rescue mission to recover a lost jacket (which would result in much harrassment from a carrot and no jacket recovery) and in the meantime, a sleeping bag, a monk and a prisoner attempted to kidnap one of our friends. Although lifting her up and walking away with her was a flawless plan, it didn't work as well as expected and she was promptly returned to us. But yeah, when carrots try to grope you and sleeping bags start kidnapping your women, you know it's probably time to leave. We made our way slowly and happily back to the train station, with strategic stops at seemingly joyful bars.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always go well for everyone. On our train back to Nijmegen, there was much fuss and commotion in the hallway: a very drunk kangaroo had locked himself inside the bathroom and refused to come out. It took a lot of threats and banging on the door from his friends and bystanders to get him to open the door, only to discover (with much horror) that he just should have stayed inside the bathroom and kept the door locked: the very drunk boxing kangaroo had thrown up all over the place. While it might seem ok to trash a city to the sound of oom-pa-pa music, trashing the train toilet is apparently unacceptable. 

Oh well, what happens in Oeteldonk, stays in Oeteldonk.

domingo, 6 de enero de 2013

A bizarre return to Nijmegen

I have flown on Ryanair a few times and I can appreciate how insanely cheap it can be to travel with them. In fact, sometimes it's more expensive to come and go to the airport than to fly to a destination more than 1000km away.

However, other than that, there isn't much more to love about the Ryanair experience. Not the exercise of fitting your bag in their hand luggage box. Not the humiliation of having to wrestle the box to get your bag out. Not the instant decivilization of Ryanair passengers, pushing children and old women out of the way, to try to get a good seat or some space for their suitcase. Not even the neverending parade of random gadgets that you are persuaded to buy during the entire duration of the flight. In fact, each time I fly with them, I generate a little more dislike for Ryanair that I've started piling up into little heaps of hate for them. However, I am currently on the most unforgettable of all my flights with Ryanair and it's not even Ryanair's fault.

I arrived to the Venice airport well ahead of time and went through check in, security and Ryanair's game of checking-hand-luggage-size without any problems. I made it to the boarding gate quite early (and pushed a few children out of my way), so I was one of the first to board the aircraft. I had a nice window seat in the airplane to look outside and make sure that at least one of he two wings is still attached to the aircraft throughout the flight. Everything was peaceful, I was reading a book, minding my own business and waiting for the rest of the passengers to board the plane and put all their bags away. After 15 minutes of the usual battle for luggage space in the overhead, everyone was more or less content and seated. The aircraft doors were closed, the stewardesses were getting ready for the safety demonstrations and the captain was joking about the weather in the Netherlands.

All of a sudden, a guy two rows in front of me casually mentions to his neighbour sitting across the corridor that he couldn't help notice that he is bleeding profusely. There is blood all over his hand, dripping on his lap and onto the seat.
"Oh" replies the bleeding man. "A guy just cut me right before we boarded the airplane. I hadn't noticed it was bleeding." he mumbles as an excuse.

The neighbour sits in awkward silence, uncertain of what he should do, while blood starts staining the rug. He looks again, sees that the man is still bleeding indifferently and decides to inform one of the stewardesses. She listens, pondering about the unusual request of taking a look at the injured man seated across the corridor, and then takes a look indeed. Enter panic, as she screams in horror, alerting her colleagues of the incident.

Despite their daring fashion choices and their distict bright blue uniforms, I have to give Ryanair's crew some credit for this one because they were all quite professional. They all run to their positions: one alerts the captain, one puts gloves on and starts fumbling around the emergency kit, pulling out gauzes and an external automatic defibrillator while another one moves the even more horrified neighbouring passengers away from the blood and the wounded man (the ones across the corridor, the rest are left behind, trapped between the window and the bleeding pariah).

The rest of the passengers, unaware until this moment of what was happening, are quickly informed by the sight of bloodied tissues flying around the front of the plane of two things. First that whatever is happening in the first few rows of seats, it involves blood and panic. Second, that the flight will probably be delayed a few minutes until the blood and the panic are cleared.

Visibly upset because of whatever is delaying the take off, the captain walks out of the cabin. He stares, just like everyone else on the plane, and isn't sure of what to do next. As the bleeding man starts looking a bit sickly and stumbles while trying to get out of his seat, someone has the good sense to call for an ambulance. The captain stares. A little girl seated across the corridors starts crying. Conveniently seated next to the window, I see the ambulance arrive and a fat man in a red suit jump out of the driver's seat. Another man with a white coat gets out from the other side, a doctor. Thank God.

They run onto the airplane and take a quick look at the man and the pool of blood in the corridor that has been partially absorbed by the carpet. They have to get him off the plane, he informs the man with a very strong italian accent. The fat man in a red suit helps the injured man stand up and we finally see his face. He looks quite ghastly and all his movements to gather his belongings are hesitant. While reaching with his good arm for his suitcase in the overhead compartment, he drops his phone. It falls in the half dry pool of blood and he drunkenly tries to pick it up, but loses his balance and falls on one of the seated passengers. The doctor hurries him out of the craft, while the fat man with the red suit takes the suitcase and picks up the phone with an air of disgust. They run out of the plane, down the stairs and into the ambulance. We wait. The ambulance leaves and a cleaning crew steps into the craft. They stare and it takes them well over a second to start cleaning up with disbelief. We watch them wipe the seats, the door of the overhead compartment and soak up the blood from the carpet. We wait while the passengers who were trapped between the window and the bleeding man squeal, stepping out of the row so they can change seats. The captain, who is now back in the cabin, apologizes for the delay but assures us he will do his best to get us to our destination as fast as possible. In the meantime, enjoy the beautiful sunset in Venice from the airplane window...

jueves, 3 de enero de 2013

Km 27,471: Vienna, the land of cemeteries

I like visiting cemeteries. Not because of my mexican love for death and celebrating everything that surrounds it with sugar skulls, flowers and cigarettes (for Grandma who loved to smoke, God rest her soul). I like visiting cemeteries for the same reason I like reading graffiti and looking at altars of St. Jude: because I'm a voyeur. May it be the death of a loved one, someone's thoughts sprayed on a wall or a person's faith in the solution of a lost cause, all of these represent public but anonymous displays of something very intimate. However cemeteries, in addition to satisfying my craving for intruding in the private life of strangers, also function as a cruel reminder that time is ticking mercilessly. When I walk past the grave of children and people for whom life ended rather sooner than later, the thought that, one day, death will catch up with us too sinks in.

I am not alone in my love for cemeteries. According to a free map picked up in a store, Viennese people have a morbid fascination with death and cemeteries, not because they are voyeurs, but just because they're grim. Viennese citizens are taught to embrace death throughout their existence. They sing to death, they build monuments to it, they take their families for a stroll through the city's cemeteries to remind their children that your own funeral is the ultimate chance for a memorable party. The Viennese take the idea of "ein schöne Leiche" (a beautiful corpse) very seriously and save money their entire life to afford the best of the best for their funeral. I would think this is messed up if it weren't because I already have my own funerary urn (courtesy of my father) to rest my ashes for eternity.

Either way, the more than 50 cementeries in Vienna are a big attraction both for its gloomy inhabitants and for the flashy troupes of tourists. The tourist guides will suggest to visit the Zentralfriedhof and bask in the glory of visiting Beethoven's, Brahms' and Falco's graves. But if the corpses of talented musicians aren't enough for you, bear in mind that there are more people buried in this cemetery than actually living in Vienna at the moment and you are likely to run into other underground celebrities. 

But no, I wanted to mention a less well-known but equally beautiful graveyard, the Cementery of the Nameless. Close to 500 persons whose body was washed ashore along the Danube have been buried here. The last burial took place in 1940, a woman who presumably committed suicide by jumping into the ice cold water of the river. Josef Fuchs, the current caretaker of the cemetery, inherited this task from his father and his grandfather who, as a police gendarme at the time the cemetery opened to receive the first bodies, had to pay frequent visits to the suicide, murder and accidental drowning victims that were layed here to rest forever. He ended up taking over the maintenance of the cemetery and caring for the graves of these lost people, who could not be taken care of by their loved ones (if there were, in fact, any). 

All the graves in the cementery are marked with a black metal plaque that says "Namenlos" or "Unbekannt" in silver ink. They are all meticulously decorated with flowers and statues, but you can easily recognize the children's graves. They are the ones decorated with toys.