Monday, June 29, 2015

Buscando un piso: The Search for an Apartment

I've moved into a new apartment, closer to the city center where the action is. Well, new is not the word to describe it. It's quite old, like almost all apartments in Spain. It's also on the second floor, and the amount of heat it retains is quite a difference from the other bottom-floor apartment I was in. This new place has air conditioning, but it dries out my throat and uses up a lot of energy - hence, a lot of money. Until I'm able to buy a couple of fans, I've been cuddling up to my boyfriend, Mr. Cold Gel Pack, as I sweat myself to sleep.

Renting an apartment in Spain is a whole other ballgame compared to in your home country. The biggest barrier: language. I often relied on friends to call landlords and find out information. I can do it myself, but it's difficult via the phone. I also wanted to avoid using inmobiliarias (rental agencies), so nailing down appointments to view flats was a game in itself.

How's the new place?

It's a small space, with three bedrooms but really only room for 2 people. The kitchen, which has no oven (this happens sometimes in Spain), is tiny so only one person can fit. So far, every morning I have been woken up at 7 a.m. by shouting neighbors, renovation noise from upstairs, or the heat. I paid a fortune today for industrial-strength earplugs.

So why am I happy with the new place? Besides its great location near the center, I detect a good vibe being here. It's a place where I can put down roots. I know how long I'm staying, and I've already lived in Jaén for a year, so I don't have that discombobulated feeling from having to move from one city to another. It's nice to be able to plan decorations.

Plus my new roommate performed an energy cleansing ritual, in order to dispel the negative energy of the previous tenant. It allows us to start fresh. I don't normally perform such things, but I do believe in the healing effects they can have. I felt refreshed after the ritual. The place feels like it has good energy, and that sensation has transferred to me as well. Home sweet home.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"I'm Melting!": Dealing with Andalucía's Heat

In the comfort of cool, low-temperature Canada, I'd see stories on the news about people who literally died from heat in Europe. My eyes widened at reports of temperatures reaching above 40 degrees. "My god," I thought, "how do people live like that?"

Cut to present-day Jaén, where daily temperatures of 35 degrees or more (I've seen 41) force me to work at home in booty shorts and slinky tank tops. Streets are abandoned by 3 p.m. as people hide from the sweltering sun, reinforcing the image of Jaén as “a big pueblo”. My obese cat has both a layer of fat AND a fur coat, forcing him to lay passed out on the cold tile floor. He is so sprawled out and still that I softly call to him, worried that the heat and his high cholesterol level have finally done him in in his old age. “Hey???” I whisper. He barely lifts an eyelid to look at me in a way that says, “F*** you for moving me to the hottest country you could think of.”

You would think there's a respite when the sun sets, but not here. This city is surrounded by sloping mountains that reflect and trap heat. So when you step out at 10 p.m., it's still hot, although it's dark. The temperature has barely dropped when you stumble home at 3 a.m., too.
This is a real photo of someone in Jaén. I swear.
I do what I can to survive, for example by walking slowly, and fighting other Jiennenses for the shady part of the sidewalk. I also don't let myself feel guilty for visiting the ice cream shop almost every day. It's honestly the only way to enjoy walking from one barrio to another. And of course, in honour of celebrating our war on the heat, my friends and I gather at night and toast with a cool, refreshing drink on the terrace.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jumping the River

Salta! Salta! [Jump!]”

Yaaa! [Alright!]” I mumbled under my breath.

The precipice wasn't even very high. But below me, the waterfall that cascaded below churned the pond white. Not being able to see to the bottom made me nervous. But hey, so did having to rappel down the other waterfall earlier, with only a slim rope keeping me from falling and cracking my head.

Welcome to Pozo Alcón, Jaén. A.k.a. a tiny village of 5,500 people in the nether regions of the Sierra de Cazorla [Cazorla Mountains]. A.k.a. the place where I faced my fear of jumping from tall heights over, and over, and over again. A.k.a. the place where I had one of the best experiences of my life!

It all started with a language misunderstanding (which is how some of the best experiences usually start, here in Spain). My friend invited me on a day trip to Pozo Alcón to do “barranquismo”. I misassociated the word with “boat”, so I thought he was referring to whitewater rafting. I boasted that I'd done it before in Canada.

In fact, I'd never done anything like this. But I didn't know that as I woke up bright and early that Saturday, eager to fight some rapids. Even as I squirmed my body into a neoprene suit, and then strapped on a harness around my waist and thighs, which contained a carabiner and a metal hook shaped like an '8', called an “8 belay ring”. Right there that should have been my clue that we were going to climb walls, but for some reason I thought the harness was for in case one of us fell out of the raft, our partner could grab it and pull us back in. (If you look up the word 'tonta' in a dictionary, you'll see my picture.)

Barranquismo can be roughly translated from the word 'ravine' as 'canyoning'. You follow a river through the path it has carved out in a mountain, although most of the time you're walking in the river. On occasion you must swim through parts, climb rocks, or rappel down waterfalls – which is what the harness was for. Not only was this my first time doing barranquismo, it was also my first time rappelling outdoors. It was scary, as we didn't use professional guides, rather a few of the experienced men in our group helped us. The walls were wet and slippery, and my old running shoes didn't have grip. Plus I started every rappel by leaning back into the void, having to trust that the rope and harness would hold. Even though I almost suffered a heart attack each time, it was really exciting, too.
At one point, we found an airy waterfall that came from the canyon edges high above. As I stood in front of it, from my perspective it looked like the earth was breaking apart into pieces, and falling upon me, each droplet looking like a piece of the world evaporating. It was mindblowing to watch, because it symbolized how my life has been falling apart lately (don't ask). Nature was showing me that something agonizing and destructive can also be so beautiful to behold.

The entire journey took 3-4 hours, as we had close to 20 people in our group. It helped that we were all fit. Although there are parts where you can quietly float as you stare up at the natural, spectacular surroundings, there's plenty of hiking, climbing, jumping, and swimming. So if anyone ever invites you for barranquismo, get ready for some scary fun!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Alpujarra: Off the Beaten Path

I love Málaga. I begged my friend for us to go there one weekend, and just lie on the beach. But the night before we were set to leave, her Spanish friend impulsively* invited us to do a “pueblo crawl”, which is like a pub crawl but with (slightly) less alcohol, more food, and no rave music. 
*This is what it's like to have Spanish friends. More often than not, something will happen spur of the moment and you have to decide whether to seize the moment, or be a wet blanket. I chose to go along.
La Alpujarra basically consists of tiny towns on the south side of the Sierra Nevada. They're all "precioso", as my Spanish friend loved to say. She was more excited than I at first, although curiosity got the best of me as we drove along the windiest roads I'd ever been on. In fact, I saw a passenger throwing up on the side of the road. Readers beware.
Following my GPS, and using my friend's knack for chatting up strangers at gas stations, we eventually found the first pueblo, Pampaneira. In stark contrast to Jaén's scorching sun, it was cloudy and cold here due to the high elevation. I had to throw pants on. As I scrunched my hands into the pockets of my sweater, we wandered through the tiny central plaza, checking out a wedding (again, my friend 'spur of the moment' ran into the church to check out the start of the ceremony), some jewelry, and then searching for food. We settled on a pub located off a tiny path, where we indulged in house wine, a massive platter Alpujarra-style with fried potatoes and select choices of meats, and a strange cheese-dessert. We drunkenly laughed and talked about life.

We moved on from pueblo to pueblo. All tiny, all with the smallest walking paths this side of Morocco. At our last one, Soportújar , we discovered why it was called the "Witches' Village”. There are many legends surrounding the practice of witchcraft here, and this place wasn't afraid to show it. We found many statues dedicated to witches, and even a site overlooking Soportújar where allegedly rituals were performed. It was a little creepy wondering if witches indeed had practiced here.
I was happy to have visited a region where most auxiliaries don't travel to. It was a slice of life that was nice to see.

Monday, June 1, 2015

My Last Day

  For the last time, I pulled out the tiny school chair from the cafeteria table and sat down, sunlight streaming in from the window. The kind, old waitress wandered over with my café con leche and toast with melted cheese. "Gracias," I said, looking at her with a sad smile. The family that ran the joint had been so nice all year, patiently waiting for me to finish my order in jumbled spanish, several mornings a week. I wasn't even hungry today, I just wanted to take advantage of the (relatively) quiet atmosphere of the cafeteria, in the hour before the school break, when all of the students bounded in to wreak havoc and noise. On my last day at the high school where I'd been working for 8 months, I wanted the comfort of sipping coffee in a tiny glass, the cheese that melted over the sides of my baguette, and the sound of the father of the family loudly ranting about his beloved fútbol team.
  I hardly told any students about my imminent departure. I wasn't in the mood for a dramatic goodbye. No matter how often you travel, you never completely feel comfortable saying goodbye to the great people that you meet. I've had trips where I spent only two days with someone, and in the end it hurt to say goodbye. Same with these kids, whom I'd seen grow for eight months. I called them MY kids, even though they weren't mine. Things had turned around greatly since the beginning of the school year. Kids who stared at me with growly eyes, not wanting to participate, were eagerly shooting up their hand to answer in english by the end. Some younger kids, who were hyperactive overachievers in the beginning, were now starting to feel the effects of hormones, settling into a quieter presence in the class. Some were starting to awkwardly figure out flirting, attempting to show physical affection to the opposite sex. Some of the older kids excitedly asked me about Canada and the U.S., hoping to fulfill their dreams of one day visiting.
  The same way I fulfilled my dream of living in Europe, I honestly hope that these kids, "my kids", all fulfill their dreams, too.