Tag Archives: Granada

Surfing the Basque Country

While protesters rallied in the rain for the release of Basque prisoners (see post), hundreds of surfers gathered down the coast for the annual ZarautzPro. The six-star ASP professional surfing event drew surfers from around the world for the competition, momentarily infusing an international mix of visitors into the sleepy beach town.

My friend Griffin and I drove to Zarautz to check it out. After writing my last post about the Basque/Spain conflict, I was looking for fresh air and something positive to write about. We drove through the deep valleys between San Sebastian and Zarautz, I thought about how this inaccessible geography helped preserve Basque traditions through isolation from Spain and France. And as we came through a tunnel and approached the sea, I remembered how generations of Basques pushed off shore in the ships that would discover the new world and bring it home through trade. Throughout history, Basques have played this balance between isolation and engagement, preservation of tradition and assimilation of foreign ideas, concepts, and – in the case of surfing – cultures.

It was just up the coast in the French Basque town of Biarritz where surfing made it’s European debut in the 60s. But before then, Basque life centered around the sea. They were some of Europe’s early fishermen and evolved into the best sailors and shipbuilders in the Spanish empire. Their water sports include rowing, a sport that developed as early whalers in small row boats would race to port to get the best price for their catch at the market. As our car pulled into Zarautz, I noticed that the town’s coat of arms bears a castle, a lion, and a whale – remnants of this earlier identity.

Today, the image of whales is gone and the beachfront is covered in the logos of surf brands from California, Australia and Europe. The old whaling port sits idly on the east side of the mile-long beach, and now serves as a convenient spot to jump directly into lineup of the best break in town. Many of the local kids, who I imagine once would have been fisherman plying the Cantabrian Coast and the northern waters beyond, now move horizontally along the coast from break to break, traveling from Portugal to France to find the best waves on the lowest budget.

As we got out of the car and walked to the beach, I marveled at the juxtaposition of Basque culture and surfing culture. The former is rooted in geography, shared history and an identity inherited from the traditions of one’s forefathers. The latter culture knows no boundaries, is based on shared interest, and focuses not on your family history, but on what you are doing in the present moment. Admittedly,false surfing identity can be purchased through clothing and stickers (i.e. a “poser”), but the truest surfers earn their identity through talent and achievement. They are two tribes, but of a totally different nature.

Perhaps traditionalists could view surfing as a cultural invasion from abroad, but the two cultures are not entirely exclusive. Despite the Basque reverence for tradition, they have accepted the new sport readily. Their historic love for the sea has swapped the whaling spear for the surfboard and integrated the sport into the local culture. The municipal government sponsored the surfing event, and much of the town’s economy depends on foreigners coming here for their waves. The popularity of surfing has spurred a number of local surf brands who sell shirts saying “Surfing the Basque Country.” Surfing provides another common identity that further unites Basques from Spanish Bilbao to French Biarritz.

I watched people from all over the world coming together to enjoy the sport. The M.C. announced surfer’s scores in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. But no commentary was necessary to appreciate the surfing. The shared sport was the common language.

Then I thought back to the activists from the other day. For them, redefining borders and defending territory is paramount. So much of who they are comes from where they are from, and I appreciate that as an essential part of identity in a world that is becoming more homogenized every year.  But for surfers, national borders are more of a hassle that stand between you and the waves up the coast.

It’s not to say that surfing is going to bring the world peace and love and harmony. It has its shortcomings. I grew up in La Jolla, California, whose surfing culture criticized for it’s localism by Tom Wolfe in The Pumphouse Gang. I remember seeing local surfers picking fights with kids from another part of the same city, simply because they came from 10 miles inland. Close mindedness exists within every identity on the planet.

But more often, surfing transcends all that. Sure, some surfers fight over waves and terrorize tourists. But on the whole it’s a new, international culture that any of us can take part in. In a world of division, it’s one more common culture we can share. And for all the talk of unity between Basques in Spain and France, I’d bet that those who spend the most time across the border aren’t the activists.  They’re the surfers.

Adios, siesta


August in Europe is the month of rest. In Spain, while the big-box stores remain open, mom and pop businesses everywhere are closed as families take off for a few weeks of relaxation. Even here in a big city like Barcelona, owners scrawl a note on the window, draw the shutters, lock the door and let the letters pile up in their mailbox.

The message to the tourist is clear: Although more tourists come here in August than any other month, I’m taking this time not to make money, but to be with my family and give myself a much-needed break. Sorry for the inconvenience, but family is more important.

Long vacation time, restricted work hours, and small family-owned businesses are the hallmarks of the welfare state of Western Europe, a system that is under threat as Spain sinks deeper into debt. But in a land where the word “crisis” hangs like a black cloud over the peoples’ sunny disposition, it seemed a bit odd that people are electing not to work when 25% of the population is unemployed. As I walked the deserted streets of L’Eixample during the lunch hour, I though that perhaps this is the time to break with tradition and perhaps give some work to young Spaniards, about half of whom are unable to find jobs.

Times of crisis are hard on everyone, and yet the bars and restaurants of Barcelona seemed rather packed to my eyes. Spaniards are renowned for living life publicly, preferring to share wine and tapas in a bar with friends rather than getting takeout and watching TV at home. But eating a leisurely lunch at home with their family remains a most cherished institution, with many shops closing between 2-5PM for the famous siesta.

But this is changing. Spaniards are making small economic choices that will have impact on their society for years to come. I notice locals skipping over mom-and-pop stores for the cheaper chinos shops, mini-markets of low-price bric-a-brac run by Chinese immigrants. They make big purchases at the malls on the outside of town, they’re starting to skip the local fruit shop, baker and butcher for a single stop at an American-style supermarket. And as the Spanish schedule becomes increasingly tied to the rest of the world, Spaniards are watching their precious siesta evaporate before their eyes.

I’m here in Barcelona on a rather tight budget, so I was scouring the town in search of a filling meal for a decent price. After a few days of living off pasta, sandwiches and tortilla de patata, I found a local restaurant chain called FresCo that had an all-you-can eat buffet for 7.45€. It looked like the Spanish equivalent of SoupPlantation, but I figured one big meal here could hold me over for the whole day, so I went inside.

There was a line of white-collar Spaniards shuffling through the line along the salad buffet. First we loaded a chunky, partially-frozen gazpacho soup into our bowls, then piled plates high of the first vegetables I’d had in a week. Classic Spanish dishes were served en mass, big bowls of which rested on ice cubes as we made our way, single file towards the cash register.

I paid, ate my salad and watched the spectacle of so many Spanish workers eating alone, unceremoniously scarfing down classic Spanish dishes in silence, hurrying to fill their stomachs before returning to the office. The slow traditional lunch of the Spanish village was gone, the family absent, the post-meal siesta impossible.

The Spanish family meal, broken by austerity and the pressing demands of the international community. The three o’clock rush passed and people started filing back to the office. Inboxes were filling up with messages from customers across Europe expecting answers within the hour.

Some say this processes is inevitable and irreversible. Others say it is time to stand up to the rest of the world and preserve the old way before it is too late. Sitting in Fresco, I wasn’t sure which side was right. I just knew that I as I had stood on the empty streets of Barcelona with 20€ in my pocket, I’d made the economic decision to eat at FresCo, but I yearned for something with more soul.

I sat alone with my decision, poking at the rubbery shellfish in my pale paella, wondering if the European life I so loved was headed towards a FresCo fate. As we ate in silence under a Top 40 soundtrack, I sensed that others were thinking the same.

As I got up to leave, my eyes caught the gaze of a Spanish yuppie about my age who had been scarfing down the last of his dessert. For a moment he seemed to come out of a deep trance. No words were exchanged, just a common sense of hunger, loss, and gui

Singapore Slingin’

500 miles from Singapore somewhere over the Gulf of Thailand I found myself in the lavatory dumping a bottle of Advil into the blue water of the airplane’s toilet.

My around-the-world trip was about to begin, and I was really nervous.  The comfort of the airplane was the edge of my bubble of safety, and the in-flight movie was the last taste of the West I was going to see for a long time.

What was it going to be like?  Asia… God, help me I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into when I bought this plane ticket!  I already missed home, and my mind was going over everything I had sacrificed to make this journey.  I had spent most of the plane ride reading a book on traveling, but for some reason I could not get myself excited about the prospect of living on $15 a day and sleeping in flea-infested hostels.

And now THIS?!?!

The stewardess had just made an announcement that we were approaching Singapore and had causally reminded us that drug smuggling was punishable by death, and that even prescription drugs must have an accompanying doctor’s note…and five minutes later here I was in the bathroom, dumping my over-the-counter Advil down the toilet.

I was jumping into the abyss of the unknown, desperately grasping at the last things within my control – such as not going to jail for smuggling Advil into Singapore.

I made the jump into the abyss and it was not as bad as I imagined.  I actually think I might have developed an immunity to culture shock after my trip to India, as nothing can be as shocking as leaving Mumbai’s airport and driving past the slums and into the mass of humanity that is India.

Singapore was tame compared to that.  What?  The taxi actually has a meter?  And the meter works?   The roads from the airport to the city center were wide, smooth and divided by a manicured grassy median – a world away from Mumbai.

I spent my first few days “adjusting” to Asia here in Singapore, though it was really not that much of an adjustment.

Singapore is the poster child of globalization – this little city-state of 4 million people has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the region and has grown at a constant rate since its independence from the British a half century ago.  Singapore is the ideal progeny of East and West, combining the best of both worlds to create a fusion of culture and markets…but this oasis of prosperity is no accident.

The government relied on Draconian policies to purge Singapore of its ‘undesirable’ elements – for example, spitting is prohibited to keep the streets free of the Indian community’s paan juice and the morning haaawwwwkkkking noise heard each morning as Asia clears its throat.  Additionally, the Singapore River was cleared of all the Chinese junks, or boats, that used to cover the river’s waters and give a unique character to the city.

But wait a second….I have gotten ahead of myself here.  In the last two paragraphs I have mentioned Chinese, Indians and the British without explaining the role of each society in the development of Singapore.

Singapore’s early history is not well documented, but it is known to have been a tiny sea port for many years before the arrival of the British in 1819.  The first Brit to arrive on the tiny island of Singapore was a man named Sir Thomas Raffles, an employee of the British East India Company searching for a location to establish a British port that could break the Dutch monopoly on the spice trade.

Singapore was perfect. It was a small island with minimal development – much of the land was covered in swamps that could be drained and reclaimed and it had plenty of potential ports.

Raffles declared Singapore a free-trade port and started building the buildings, boulevards, and bridges that would eventually become modern-day Singapore.  The port prospered, and the indigenous Malay population was joined by Chinese immigrants and Indians from southern India.  Today, the Chinese make up about 75% of the population, while the Muslim Malays and Indians are about 15% and 8% respectively.

Singapore is a grand city – the Colonial District originally housed the British government and these old buildings still line the Singapore River and give today’s tourist a view into the Colonial Era.  While the Colonial District has not changed much, the river that snakes through it has been completely transformed in the last 30 years.  Historically, the river was full of Chinese junks (boats), which would line the quays tied side-to-side for hundreds of meters.  At one place, the river is said to be shaped like the body of a carp fish and the junks were said to be the scales of the fish.

In the 1970s, the government decided it would make the Singapore River safe enough to swim in within 10 years – the junks had to get out of the river, thereby ending the way of life of the many fishermen.  And as one of the junk owners said, “remove the scales and the fish will die”.  He was right.

Today the water is clean, and the river no longer functions as a port.  What used to be warehouses are now high-class restaurants and high-rises of high-finance.

After a day or two of walking around this immaculately clean environment, I was having trouble finding my bearings: was I in Asia or was this the Central Business District of San Francisco?  Syndey?  London?  Where were the swarming masses of people?  Where were the tuk-tuk drivers and motorcycle taxis?

I hopped on the subway and headed to Little India in search of some grit – for grit and grime is what makes life interesting, and cleanliness is next to sterility.

On the subway, I saw a sign that said Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime – I immediately had an itch to move onto the rest of Asia in search the kind of adventure lacking in Singapore.


I checked out of my hostel, had a Singapore Sling and bought a bus ticket to Melaka, Malaysia.

I was on the road again…

Next stop, MALAYSIA!