Tag Archives: Sport

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.

War and Peace in the Basque Country

Thirty Basque men, women, children and seniors stand in the rain silently, forming a long human chain in front of the Kursaal Building in San Sebastian. The modern, stylish building stands triumphantly over the beach and the old town, a physical symbol of the Basque people’s opening their doors to the world and a peaceful future. The demonstrators at their door hold pictures of a convicted member of the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, and their message is much less ambassadorial, more personal, poignant, and polemical.

My friends and I pass their long line, reading the signs they hold solemnly to a passing crowd of mixed sympathies and bewildered tourists. I look at the images of prisoners, unintelligible Basque phrases, their red, green and white flag, and the map of the un-official borders of Euskadi, with the label Euskal Presoak etxera, a phrase I now understand to mean, Basque prisoners come home.

Such protests are a common sight in the Basque Country, though when I first arrived here I was unaware of their significance. I made my first trip to San Sebastian while working as an English teacher in a small village in rural, conservative Old Castile, deep in the Spanish heartland. From the languid villages of the meseta, it was difficult to imagine that people in the north were fighting for their independence. I researched the conflict online, discovering a complicated and bloody battle going back centuries in time. Before I left for San Sebastian, the philosophy teacher took me out for a beer and attempted to fill me in on the situation.

He pulled out a napkin and drew the map of the Basque Country, the three French provinces and four Spanish provinces that made up “Euskal Herria,” the unrecognized “Land of the Basque Speakers” straddling the Pyrenees. He then drew the arrows pointing inwards from Spain and France, forming the flag I now saw the protesters holding in the rain. He did not write or explain Presoak etxera.

“If you see this flag, be careful.” he had warned me. “This flag means it’s bearer supports terrorists. It means they support ETA and the attacks they’ve made against Spain – from bombing innocent civilians to assassinating politicians. Avoid any bar that flies the flag in it’s window, and whatever you do, don’t talk politics with anyone.”

I nodded, folded up the napkin and put it in my jacket pocket. I suspected he’d provided me a facile explanation that lacked the profundity of thought expected from a philosophy teacher. I decided to reserve my judgement until I saw the situation for myself.

I saw the flag everywhere in the Basque Country. It hung from windows of homes, from balconies of the old town, from behind the bars of taverns from Bilbao to Biarritz. It was so ubiquitous, I couldn’t believe that everyone who held it was as evil as my co-worker made them out to be. I tried to avoid talking politics as long as I could. But after a few beers at a local tavern where the flag was printed on the napkins, curiosity got the best of me.

“This flag is calling for justice,” said the bartender, leaning over the counter. “When the Spanish arrest a member of ETA, they do horrible things to our people. They torture them, they murder them, and they put the rest in prisons in the most distant corners of Spain, as far away as the Canary Islands [off the coast of West Africa]. We can’t afford to visit our friends and relatives, many of whom we believe are being unjustly held. These arrows mean we want the prisoners to come back here to the Basque Country. To Euskal Herria.”

He looked me gravely in the eyes, pushed off the bar and went back to drying pint glasses behind the bar and talking to the other patrons in Basque. I left my inquiry at that, knowing that the issue was far more complex that I could fathom at that time. I felt the weight of centuries of mutual mistrust and anger pressing down on the shoulders of both this bartender and the philosophy teacher back in Castile.


I was unwittingly pushed into the middle of the conflict soon thereafter. Two weeks after returning to small town Spain, the local Guardia Civil detained me and interrogated me on suspicion of being a member of ETA hatching a plot on their local police station (see post here). They had seen me writing notes in my notepad and had followed me for two weeks, during which time I went to the Basque Country. I supposed they had planned to make headlines by thwarting my operation, only to realize I was merely the town’s English teacher.   They released me apologetically, saying “We can’t be too sure these days, you know…with ETA and all.”

Months later, I moved to the Basque Country and took a picture of one of these independence rallies. A local grabbed me hand and stopped me. “Put away the camera,” she said, “People here are going to think you are a spy for the Guardia Civil.” I told her about the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil back in Castilla. She scrunched her face into a scowl and said, “Fascists. Ignorant fascists, the whole lot of them.”

Though I laughed nervously about the irony of the incidents at the time, they revealed a deep misunderstanding and paranoia on both sides of the conflict. During my first year in San Sebastian, I avoided the subject of ETA, learning to celebrate the uniqueness of the Basque region without focusing on the more radical elements of the independence movement.

I fell in love with the Basque Country. There I discovered a nation without a country, a people with a long history largely unknown to the world, and a culture that drew me in and mesmerized me. I realized that if so many cultural treasures lie hidden within well-trodden Western Europe, the world beyond the West must hold enough diverse cultures to fill a lifetime of discovery.

Old Basque Dude
Photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza

And so now, when I see the demonstrators standing in the rain, holding up pictures of convicted terrorists, I understand that the faces in these photos are their sons, sisters, cousins and friends. The conflict is personal for everyone involved.  There are bloody hands and innocent lives lost on both sides of the battle. Many heated conversations have made me realize that the longest continuous conflict in Europe can not be solved by me alone.

Then I think back to the philosophy teacher who told me not to talk to the bartender. I think about the Guardia Civil and the activist, and the chasms that separate their perspectives. Then I realize that these divisions and misunderstandings are preserved by silence.  And so I keep talking and writing, because it is only through communication that we can hope to forge the mutual understanding we need to build peace.

Deja Vu: Buses & Hitchhiking Across Aragon

This morning I decided to leave Barcelona and head north to visit my good friend Griffin in the Basque Country. I felt listless in Barcelona. It had been over two weeks since I’d stepped off the ship, and I’d been bouncing around Italy and Spain ever since. In Barcelona I’d been in a 6-bed dorm for a week when one of my roommates broke open my safe and stole part of my summer’s wages. I felt betrayed and alone, and I yearned to be with a friend I could trust in a city that felt familiar.

I phoned Griffin and told him I was coming to San Sebastian, our home away from America. I took a bus out of Barcelona and immediately pulled out my laptop and put on a movie as we drove along the base of the Pyrenees. All morning I had been meditating on the balance between freedom and solitude so I watched Into the Wild, the true story of a college graduate who leaves his friends and family behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness by himself.

Instead of finding existential truths in solitude, he ends up eating poisonous berries and dies alone. I watched the film with rapture, making all the inevitable comparisons between his nomadic experience and mine. As the protagonist lay dying, he forces his emaciated fingers grab a pen and write one last message: “Freedom is only real when shared.”

The bus stopped just as the film finished. I looked out the window and felt deja-vu. I recognized our location, desolate truck stop about twenty miles outside of Zaragoza, in the dry foothills of Aragon. As I alighted and felt the warm, dry air coming off the bald brown hills, for a moment I felt I was somewhere off the 395 in California, taking a pit stop with my family on the way to Mammoth Lakes.

I had been here before, traveling in the other direction in another set of circumstances. We were surrounded by semi-trucks from across Europe, their drivers taking naps in the cabins behind the wheel. I saw myself from 22 months ago, as a dust-covered English teacher hitchhiking from San Sebastian to Barcelona. I had walked up to the truck doors and asking the drivers if they could give a humble traveler a lift towards Barcelona. I had nodded patiently after polite refusals in Czech, Hungarian, French, Spanish and German before a car picked me up and raced me towards Barcelona.

It seemed like I was a different person then. Had I really changed so much? I remember the decision to set out hitching quite clearly. I had wanted to escape society and be on my own. I had been settled as an English teacher in San Sebastian for over a month and a half, and I had been so busy making friends that I had yet to leave the city to explore Spain – a long time by my standards. I had felt my youthful restlessness giving way to stability, maturity and the responsibility of work. I was starting to put down roots and I felt the urge to move. I bought a map of Iberia and imagined adventures between my home on the northern coast and the distant towns of Seville, Lisbon, and Barcelona.

I jumped at the first opportunity – a four day weekend, plenty of time for adventure. I bid farewell to my roommates and walked out my door to the gas station on the outskirts of town. I held a cardboard sign in my hands – BCN. After an hour of talking to drivers, I got a ride to Pamplona.

It had been a trip to momentarily escape from the life I was building in San Sebastian. I was sharing an apartment with seven other people, and though I was enjoying their company, I felt I didn’t have a moment to myself. I yearned the solitude of the road, the emptiness of Spain’s meseta in which I hoped to hear the truths of life so often muffled by the chaos of the cities and the murmur of friends.

It had taken me two days to reach the gas station where I now stood, almost two years later. I had waited nearly six hours to get a ride out of Pamplona. My first lift took me only 20 kilometers. By dusk, I found myself standing on a thin piece of shoulder between an empty two lane highway and acres of vacant farmland. In the emptiness of the meseta, I’d listened for the words of wisdom I’d sought. I only heard trucks passing by without slowing down. I smelt manure, I felt hungry and tired, and I wondered why I hadn’t just taken the bus to Barcelona.

Two years later, I smiled looking back on that moment. Despite all the impractical romanticism of that adventure, I’d finally found a ride with a semi truck whose driver told me he’d take me all the way to Barcelona in one shot, but I told him I’d wanted to see Zaragoza. When he said he couldn’t get off the highway with his 18-wheeler, I insisted on being dropped off on the edge of a six-lane freeway at midnight and hiking between the off-ramps through the bush into the center of town. It had been my own, more modest attempt at going into the wild.

This time I’d elected to take the bus for 30€. But I hadn’t hitchhiked then to save cash. I’d done it for the adventure, to open up the possibilities waiting between A-B, chance encounters I knew I could would not find in my assigned seat on the tourist bus. That adventure turned out to be the first of many larger steps, culminating in my decision to pack up my life in Spain, cut myself loose completely and try to work as a sailor on a ship sailing around the world.

It made me think about what had changed within me since then. Perhaps the quiet emptiness of the sea had reminded me of the joys of coming into port, to the warmth of civilization and company. Maybe after so many wild adventures, the restlessness of youth was finally leaving my bones.

I felt happy with today’s decision. The first time I’d passed through this station, I was fleeing society for the open road. Now I was beginning to appreciate the necessity of company and the folly of solitude for it’s own sake.

The bus driver honked the horn and we re-boarded the bus. I looked back on the truck stop, doubting that my hitching days were over, but promising that the next time I stick out my thumb, I’ll do so in the company of another kindred soul.

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

Donostia Dive Bars – Night Life in San Sebastián, Spain

Originally Published on MatadorNights

San Sebastian, Spain is an elegant city. These places are not. This guide will show you a grittier side of Spain’s most elegant seaside city that most tourists don’t see.

San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is at once very touristy and extremely local. Foreigners and donostiarras tend to run in different circles and most visitors never escape the warren of touristic bars in the parte vieja (old town). It took me six months of asking around before I moved beyond the anglophone bubble into tabernas where locals go to get down.

I’ve posted the fruits of that half-year search here. Most nights begin with eating pintxos and move quickly into bar-hopping bacchanalia. So I’ve put the pintxo spots first, most of which close around eleven. The other seven bars close around 3AM.

Between heavy metal, live music, and pintxos, you’ll find the trouble you’re looking for here.
La Mejillonera

When partying, I always start at the Mejillonera around 9PM. Each night, this busy seafood joint buzzes with locals slurpin’ down €3 plates of mussels and patatas bravas (potatoes with secret sauce) – hence the floor covered in beer and discarded shells.

Cheap food, free bread, and 1-liter catchis of beer for €3.60 makes this the ideal place to fill your stomach and kick-start your buzz.

Calle Puerto 15, Parte Vieja

Bar Gorriti

Most of San Sebastian’s pintxo bars are quite fancy. Bar Gorriti is not. Vagrants and working men alike come here for pintxos and drinks well within their price range. Local tip: maximize your bar-hopping budget by ordering a half-beer, called a zurrito.

San Juan, 3, Parte Vieja

Juantxo Taberna

Shifting from food to party, we have Juantxo Taberna. Famous for their €3 bocadillos (submarine sandwiches), Juantxo’s is always brimming with donostiarras drinking cañas (pints) of beer at any time of day. As dining shifts to drinking, the boisterous crowd flows into the street.

Calle 6, Parte Vieja

The Port

In fact, boozing in the street is essential to a night out in San Sebastian. Though technically illegal, outdoor pre-parties are an institution warranting their own name, the botellón.

Thrifty locals converge at the port between 11PM and 1AM before hitting up pricier bars. Follow their lead and make yourself a kalimotxo – equal parts of €1 boxed wine and Coca-Cola, served with ice in a plastic cup. Yum.

Parte Vieja


If it’s after midnight and you’re properly buzzed, you can head to the Parte Vieja for more trouble, starting with Hamabost. This place is perfect for knocking back chupitos (shots) while overlooking the Plaza de la Constitución as the DJ jams the deep cuts of classic rock. And there’s plenty of space in case you’re rolling deep after the botellón.

Plaza de la Constitución, 15, Parte Vieja


Next, you can grab the baddest-ass dudes from your crew and go to Zunbeltz, San Sebastian’s most nefarious metal bar. The above-average amount of hair, leather, and facial piercings of its patrons makes it easy to spot.

Stepping inside is like entering a time capsule from 1982 where guitar solos and stiff whiskeys drown out the shitty euro-pop of nearby discos.

Pescadería, 12, Parte Vieja

Calle San Juan de Bilbao

Calle San Juan de Bilbao is not everyone’s cup of tea. The street’s overt Basque nationalism might put some people off, but the half-dozen bars here are as local as it gets.

Either way it’s wise to read up on the Basque Country’s political situation before visiting. Crowds tend to migrate between Herria Taberna, Suhazi Taberna and their smaller neighbors. All are safe bets.


Akerbeltz is a gay-friendly bar that’s a good time for anyone. This local favorite is a stone-hewn grotto centered around a marble horseshoe bar, replete with Neolithic cave art and drinks strong enough to knock you into the stone age.

In summer the party spills out into the nearby staircase. Feel free to do the same.

Calle de Mari, 19, Parte Vieja

Le Bukowski

Up for a hike? Leave the parte vieja behind and cross the river to the offbeat barrio of Egia, home to Le Bukowski. This popular dive is famous for live music, good tunes and great times – and the highest concentration of skinny jeans and plaid shirts in town.

The young, welcoming crowd puts down €2 beers ’til 5AM — two hours later than any other bar on this list. Weekend ambiance rotates between non-techno dance parties and live music (usually with €5 cover). Check out the events calendar here.

Calle de Egia, 18, 20012, Egia

Leize Gorria

If everyone drank at bars like Leize Gorria, perhaps the world would know peace. The bar’s Uruguayan owners are fighting the good fight from their subterranean casa cultural, a “free and open forum for self-expression and intercultural exchange.”

There’s live music all weekend, but Monday and Thursday nights’ Jam Sessions best embody their faith in the universality of music. Anyone can pick up a guitar and chant down Babylon with the crowd — including you. Don’t be fooled by the empty ground-level bar. The real party is underground.

Calle Zubieta 9, La Concha

Koh Tao

When you eventually rise to the sunlight, wash away your hangover with a cafe con leche and a slice of tortilla at San Sebastian’s hippest cafe-cum-bar, Koh Tao. Jump in the ocean, take a siesta, and start all over again. Repeat enough times, and you may never leave San Sebastian.

Calle Bengoetxea 2, Centro Romantico

How I Was Mistaken for a Terrorist (Arévalo)

“It’s that damn beard of yours, Marko,” reasoned my mom over the phone, “That’s exactly why you were supsected of being a terrorist.  I mean, what do you expect? Walking around with a backpack and a guitar case like a dirty hippy…you just stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s time you cleaned up before you get any more problems.”

I couldn’t argue with her.  I do stick out a bit in Arévalo.  Despite my best efforts to fit in – wearing more European clothes and hanging out in cafeterías reading El País, sipping café con leche and eating tortilla – I obviously hadn’t quite blended in yet.

I thought about how I must appear to the locals.  In one word: peculiar.  Dashing here and there with my notepad in hand, jotting down thoughts and ideas for articles.  Speaking in a foreign tongue. Saying “Hola” to complete strangers on the street (God forbid).  Typing away furiously on my laptop in smoky cafeterias (the closest thing Spain has to coffee-shop in the American-sense).  All the men smoking cigarettes and taking the daily 2 PM shot of aguardiente before retiring for lunch and their siesta.

Meanwhile, this strange bearded man with the only laptop in Arévalo is asking for a coffee and something called “WiFi.”  The bartender is confused.  I resort to pantomime and tweak my pronunciation to mimic that of the Spaniards – eeennnteerrnet.

“Ahhhh!” he proclaims, “WeeeeeFeeee.”  I nod my head.  He shakes his.  “No, we don’t have it.”

How the hell am I supposed to write travel articles for a foreign magazine from a town where the Internet is regarded with a skepticism not seen since the Luddites?

Unfortunately, the Internet in my apartment doesn’t cut it.  When I first arrived in Arévalo, I unknowingly broke a few social mores by walking around my apartment complex asking my neighbors if they would want to split WiFi.  There were a few signals in the building, I explained, and since my roommates somehow didn’t need the Internet, I’d love to split it with someone.  Instead of the passwords to their networks, all I received was a half-dozen perplexed looks from my neighbors.  Unwilling to pay for an entire line for myself, I bought a 3G USB card.

Little did I realize that the Internet in Spain works fewer hours per week than the average Spaniard.  My expectations were still at American levels: 24/7/365 Customer-Is-King-Blistering-Fast-Internet.  Instead I was stuck with 3G – chances are it’s faster to load this page on your iPhone than on my computer.

But I am digressing.  This rant about the Internet has distracted us from the topic at hand – how my peculiar behavior in Arévalo made me a suspected terrorist in the eyes of our local police force.

“Local police force” is not an accurate description.  I was fingered by the Guardia Civil, Spain’s equivalent of sheriffs for the rural parts of Spain.  They were originally formed by Queen Isabella II to dismantle any revolutionary sentiment amongst the rural peasantry – especially in the Basque Country.  The Guardia Civil have been a constant irritant between the Basques and the Spaniards ever since.  The Basque struggle for independence from the Spanish goes back centuries, but unfortunately it is now best known for its radical extremists, the terrorist group ETA.  ETA has made several recent bombing attacks within Spain and France, including a car bombing in Madrid’s international airport.

I first met our local Guardia Civil officers last week under rather unusual circumstances.  I was walking to Arévalo’s train station with my backpack and my guitar.  Nothing out of the ordinary – just my routine escape from the unbearable stagnation of Arévalo.  I was going to hang with some friends in nearby Avila, and I was hustling to catch the last train of the night.

A Guardia Civil truck passed me slowly.  Two officers were eyeing me as I crossed the bridge that separates Arévalo from our lonely hilltop train station.  I’d become accustomed to getting strange looks from my neighbors, so I thought nothing of it.  Then, de repente, the car flipped a u-turn and blocked my path 100 meters ahead.  Two officers came out, stood aside their truck, and waited.

They approached me as I neared their blockade.  They greeted me politely, asked for my registration papers, and motioned me to follow them to their truck.  Confused as I was, I handed them my Spanish identification card and followed their instructions.

One officer got on the horn and began radioing my information to headquarters.  The other pulled out a notepad and started asking me questions.

Who are you?  Where are you from and what are you doing in Arévalo?  How long have you been here?  Why haven’t we seen you before? 

I didn’t know where to start.  Who am I?  Well, after an extended stint of traveling and soul searching, I still can’t say I’ve got that one down.  But who does?  So for now, just write down “English teacher.”

What am I doing in Arévalo?  I ask myself that question every night.  Why, lord, why?  Is it a cosmic joke for a globe-trotter to be stuck in the least cosmopolitan town in Spain?  Fate?  Why have you placed me in this small town, so close to the action in Madrid and yet so far away from where I want to be?

The first officer got off the radio and asked if he could look through my bag.  I agreed, and I continued answering questions as they inspected all the pockets in my backpack.

How long have I been here?  I had to think for a moment.  I felt like Tom Cruise in the final scenes of Castaway. I’d have to go back to my cave and count the marks I’ve tallied on the walls.  Half a year?  Maybe more?  My mind floated off, amazed at how much time I’d spent in this town.

Why haven’t you seen me before?  Maybe because I bounce out of this place every chance I get?

Then, all of a sudden, a third man popped out of the shadows.  He was dressed in all black and wearing a ski mask.  I could only see his squinty eyes and his frowning brow.  He got in my face and started his own interrogation.  He right to the chase:

Where were you two weeks ago on Monday morning, at nine fifty in the morning? 

I had to think.  I told him I was probably teaching.

No!  You were standing in front of the Guardia Civil station taking notes on our activities from across the street! 

WTF?!?!?  What could they be talking about?  Then it clicked – they were right.  I had been in front of their station taking notes – because their station is directly across from Arévalo’s only Internet café and I had been waiting for it to open so I could use their Internet to research an article I was writing for OffTrackPlanet.  I had been brainstorming as I waited and writing down my thoughts for the article.  I told them all this and I explained that I wrote for a travel magazine.

The three of them looked at each other confusedly.  A travel writer?  Here in Arévalo?  They asked to see my notebook, and I handed it to them. They skimmed through it and stared blankly at the pages of English-language notes.   One of them scratched his head.

They looked to each other, then to me.  You’re free to go.  I asked them why they had stopped me, and they told me they had thought my suspicious behavior meant I was some sort of terrorist, planning an attack on their police station.  We can’t be too careful these days, they said, with ETA and all.

Jesus.  Me, a terrorist?  As they hopped in their car and drove off into the night, the implications of what had happened set in.  The man in the ski-mask lingered in my thoughts.  They had been following me, and when they saw I was about to leave town they popped me.  How long had they been trailing me?  How had I not noticed them?

It seemed to me that it was my peculiar behavior that caused them to notice me.  The individual in conflict with small-town Spanish society.  As my mom said, maybe I should try to blend into the crowd better.  But is conformity the best answer to avoiding problems with the government?

The terrorist problem that faces Spain is similar to that which faces western society as a whole.  The difference in Spain is that the terrorists, a handful of radical Basques, look ethnically quite similar to the Spanish.  This can trigger a paranoid fear that anyone in the crowd could be a threat to society.

After being fingered as a terrorist, I started questioning whether this approach was the best way to combat violent extremism.  Is the problem the man taking notes across the street from the police station?  Not quite.  Individual attacks are the symptoms of deeper problems, ones that these extremists feel can not be changed within the system.  Terrorism is the desperate resort of those who are unwilling to engage in the political process.  It is the responsibility of governments to engage with all members of society and to bring even the most extreme citizens of the world to the table.

I am no expert on the conflict between the Basques and the Spanish.  I know there have been wrongs on both side of the long history.  But I want to learn more about this conflict, and I hope that my neutral position as a foreigner can allow me to hear both sides equally.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am planning on moving to the Basque Country next year.  Tomorrow I leave for the Basque Country to spend 10 days traveling throughout both the Spanish and French sides of the Basque Country.

I am currently reading a fascinating book, The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this oft-forgotten corner of Europe.

As the Guardia Civil found out, I am not a terrorist, though my friends in Arevalo jokingly call me el etarra (the ETA terrorist).  I have not abandoned hope in resolving the all the world’s problems peacefully.  Travel has shown me that none of the cultures around the world are too different to co-exist in peace.  Hopefully we will all realize this soon enough, and one day all eccentric, bearded travel writers can take notes in front of police stations in peace.  ; )

Pax Vobiscum, I’m off to the Basque Country – on a mission of peace!

Top 10 Things to do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Originally published on OffTrackPlanet.com

Whether you’re just making a pit-stop on a EuroRail marathon tour or spending a year at one of Madrid’s universities, OTP will help you cut past the crowds and get straight into the heart of Spain’s vibrant capital, without busting a hole in your wallet. Ready to start? Here’s a list of 10 things you can’t miss while in Madrid.

Historical Madrid on the Cheap

465880807 b8608182cf Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Lucky for you, the most historical sights in Madrid are free. The Spanish are a social people, so it makes sense that Madrid’s most important public monuments are the large plazas where Madrileno’s (the people of Madrid) congregate to chat and people-watch. Each of Madrid’s neighborhoods have their own plazas, but the largest and most central are: Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Villa and the marvelous Plaza de Oriente. The latter opens up to the former royal palace, El Palacio Real. You have to pay to enter the palace, but it is enjoyable to simply wander around its gardens for free.

Hang with Dali and Picasso

museosorolla   Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Anyone who leaves Madrid without visiting at least one of its world-famous museums deserves a smackdown. The most famous three, Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, collectively hold more masterpieces than you could possibly absorb in a weekend. Even the most philistine among us can appreciate Picasso’s Guernica or anything by Dali. The first two museums are free on Sundays. Bring your student card for a discount! But there are many other smaller gems, including our personal favorite: Museo Sorolla (free for students).

Salir de Tapas

dsc 0672 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Hopping from bar to bar sampling tapas (bite-sized bar snacks) is one of the most enjoyable Spanish traditions. Going out for tapas typically involves having a drink and a nibble at a half dozen bars, all of which are, loud, standing-room-only, and loads of fun. Though tapas traditionally come free with your drinks, Spain is drifting towards pay-per-tapa system. OTP has scraped up some places that defy the trend. Try El Tigre in Chueca for the best free tapas in Madrid. The most concentrated areas of tapas bars are in La Latina (especially Calle de Cava Baja and C. de Huertas).


When Spaniards eat tapas, they throw their trash on the floor, so check the ground of wherever you go: the dirtier the floor, the better the tapas.

Jam to Flamenco Guitar

Music is a vital element of Spanish culture. No visit to the birthplace of flamenco would be complete without seeing a live show. Most flamenco bars charge 30 euros to enter ($45) and that’s no bueno. Our suggestion? Go to La Solea in La Latina where you’ll get free admission when you order a copa of wine, settle down in the smoky bar and let the gypsy-influenced rhythms carry you away.

Get Lost in the Barrios

3193911579 3dcc0eb1d4 o Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Most tourists will hang around central Madrid, near Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol. Give it the obligatory gander, and then check out one of the city’s offbeat barrios, (neighborhoods). All are within walking distance and each offers something different: the funky old-skool vibes of Malasana, the live music and nightlife in Huertas, or the stylish restaurants of Madrid’s gay barrio, Chueca. Forget your guidebook and wander through each of them until you discover your own special corner of Madrid.

Pick Up Some Spanish Style

2 flea market2 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

No, the Spanish don’t have sexier DNA; it’s the way they dress. Madrid is the home of Spanish style, and it’s not hard to find something to bring back home. If the ritzy boutiques of Salamanca are not for you, head over to Malasaña, Gran Viaor Calle de Fuencarralto find what you need. If you’re counting your last Euros, hold out till Sunday to bargain in El Rastro flea market.

Eat Like a Local

mercado san miguel 2009 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

A fun introduction to Madrid’s food is El Mercado de San Miguel. The glass and metal building contains dozens of kiosks showcasing a wide variety of Spanish cuisine. You can easily spend a few hours here stuffing your cheeks with a bit of everything. For a cheap, authentic meal, go to Casa Mingo next to the Principe Pio metro stop. Also, Cien Montaditos(the menu consists of 100 little mini-sandwiches) is a chain of cheap restaurants. It’s hard to argue with a montadito and a beer for 1.20 Euros.

OTP Tips:

Eating Out Formula for the “so broke it ain’t no joke” (about 5 Euros per day) : tortilla (potato omelet) for breakfast 1 euro‚ bocadillos (sandwiches) for lunch from the Museo de Jamon (locations everywhere), and El Tigre for a dinner of tapas (see #3).

Have a Fridge at Your Disposal? Go to Supersol, Dia or any other local supermarket. Stock up on sliced meat, cheese and bread (label the packages with your name and date so people at the hostel feel guiltier stealing them) and make your own damn bocadillos!

Drink Like a Local

botellon2 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Memorize this word: Botellon. Every weekend, thousands of young people gather in plazas to drink wine under the stars before going out. This practice, called the botellon, is widespread across all of Spain, especially in the summer. Do as the locals and mix yourself a calimocho: 2 parts red wine and 1 part coca-cola. Don’t shy away from wine in boxes. Don Simon boxes run you about a euro and the contents are of better quality than the crap you’re paying 6 bucks for in the states.

Best places to botellon: Plaza de Espana and Plaza de Santa Ana between 10-2 AM.

By the way…Drinking in public is technically illegal in Madrid and although the law is rarely enforced. You don’t need to brown bag and look over your shoulder, but just don’t piss on anybody – follow the locals.

Dance Like a Local

665144 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s BudgetAvoid the pijo (posh) discos and go where the students are. Tupperware (bar) or Palma III (disco) in Malasana will bring out the booty shaker in you. A safe bet is to head to Plaza de Santa Ana, talk to the club promoters passing out flyers, pick a place and dance till the metro opens up at 6 AM.

Lazy Sunday

retiro1 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

After you’ve done all the above, wrap up with a lazy Sunday, Madrid-style. Here’s the plan:

  • Wake up at the crack of noon and make your way to the La Latina neighborhood to catch El Rastroflea market before it closes at 3. It’s the largest outdoor market in Europe and the whole city comes out for it every week. You can buy anything from a scarf to a chicken at this place. Buying nothing at all is fine; the bustling vibe is the most exciting part anyway.
  • Then migrate with the Madrilenos to El Retiro park to while away the afternoon. Thousands of people lounge on the grass and a massive drum circle starts up next to the lake.

Not active enough for you? Rent a rowboat for 4 euros and row around the lake till your arms fall off.

If you are able to squeeze half of these activities between your siestas, you’ll walk away from Madrid having experienced a side of the city most visitors never see. So what are you waiting for? Flamenco, tapas, and fiestas beckon.

Carinval en Cádiz (Pt 2.)

We’d lost our rum for the second time in two hours, plus most of El Luchador’s clothes. But there’s no looking back – it’s time for a pow-wow. I pull El Luchador away from another photo-shoot and huddle our group together.

“Ok, boys,” I ask, “what do we want to do?”

“Um…have fun…”

“Talk to girls…”

We decide the best place to do this is all the way across Cadiz, in Plaza de España. Finding girls is no longer a priority for me – the Chicken and I are hitting it off well. Still, it’s time to vamoose. I offer the Chicken my hand and guide her through the crowd.

The six of us break away from the crowd and cut down a side street. A half dozen girls line either side of the street, squatting against the wall and pissing in plain sight, sin vergüenza. The wet cobbled streets are coated with gray sludge of booze, piss and rain.

The music is far away now and I notice the relentless sound of bottles smashing against the ground. I can feel glass grinding and cracking under the soles of my soiled shoes as we walk back to the liquor store.

We pool together some money and get more rum – one bottle this time, not two. Fill the cups up and carry nothing in our hands. No more risks.

Taylor must be feeling antsy. He has stripped down once again and a crowd of thirty is watching him attempt to squeeze his 6’6’’ frame into a miniature car – some kind of coin-operated children’s ride. Derek returns with the drinks and we continue towards Plaza de España.

It’s three hours past midnight by the time I realize it’s Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t resemble it in the slightest. People everywhere are making out – pirates with Smurfs, D’Artangian with Cleopatra. Pure concupiscence here, not a shred of romance to be found.

It’s time to make my move. I pull on the Chicken’s feathers and say her sexy costume makes me want to ‘pluck her.’ She gobbles up the lame joke and we start making out.

The two of us continue kissing while some of the boys go off to take a leak. The Chicken’s friend, the Hen, suddenly slips and falls in a planter full of brown sludge – the physical embodiment of Carnival at its grimiest. He’s trying to smile and rationalize his misfortune as he wipes the Carnival Juice off his pants. “It’s probably just rainwater…it rained a lot today…it’s probably just rainwater…”

yeah, man, sure it is. We are nodding our heads sympathetically when Zubin returns from peeing, and now we are ready to move once again.

My notepad from this point on is filled with indecipherable scribble. The crowd is at its peak and it is too crowded to write. I pull out my camera but the screen is totally smashed in. It’s destroyed. My spirits are too high to care. I pull the Chicken closer. All my mental images are in portrait style now. Vertical glimpses of Carnival squeezed between two buildings: one-part party-goers, two-parts brightly painted walls and balconies.

We claw our way through the crowd, determined to arrive in Plaza de España if nothing else. Left down the alley, then right, straight down the road and across a string of plazas. Twenty minutes later we see Plaza de España stretching out before us.

¡Por fin! we shout. ¡Finally! My hand fishes behind my back for my Chicken. I turn around but she’s gone.

¡Mierda!” I scream. “I lost my Chicken!” I try calling her, but my pre-paid card is out of credit. Derek and the Hen are also nowhere to be found. Jealous suspicions swirl through my mind. I snap back into the moment. Our friends are gone forever. Just Zubin and El Luchador remain.

It’s taken us over two hours to get to this damn plaza and thus far we’ve lost three bottles of rum, 11 friends, Taylor’s shirt, his wrestling mask, my camera and my Chicken. The plaza is half empty and noticeably quieter than the rest of Carnival. The three of us circle up near the center of the square, slowly sip our drinks and start scoping the scene.

“Now what?”

“Talk to girls.”


Zubin glances over his right shoulder, then his left.

“I thought this was the square where cute girls came up and talked to us.”

“No. That one is Plaza de…” Taylor’s voice trails off.

Zubin pulls back his mask and yawns. “Que sueño tengo. This festival is a marathon. We Americans are accustomed to partying in sprints. When does the first train leave?”

“4:45,” I grumble.

The church bells strike four and we mob to the train station. RENFE employees open the gates to the station and we flood into the vestibule, down the platform and onto the train. 45 minutes till ETD.

Zubin and I plop down across from two guys from Jerez de la Frontera and they start trying to teach us how to clap flamenco style, but it’s some inscrutable rhythm my untrained ear can not decipher. Everyone is privy to this gypsy-influenced beat except us. I try to mimic it with no success – My brain can’t comprehend something so irregular.

Our friends keep repeating the beat:

Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez!.

I’m still practicing this clap as they start telling us about Jerez’s annual feria in May. I try to keep my eyes open and pay attention…

we must come to Jerez to see the festival. Something about flamenco guitarists with girls dancing. Even horses dancing – horses! On their hind-legs, dancing to the music! Yes, it’s unbelievable but it’s true. We simply must see it for ourselves. Yes of course, we can stay with them, in their home with their family and their mothers will cook us the traditional Andalusian food, something muy tipico de Jerez. Have we tried the local Sherry wine? Why yes, there are some manchitas of it on my shirt as we speak. Yes, yes, we will come to the festival and yes we will drink sherry wine together, yes, yes, por supesto, por supuesto, tio…

…I wake up thirty minutes later with one of them kicking me in the leg. It’s your stop! El Puerto de Santa Maria! Get off! ¡Deprisa! ¡Deprisa!

Carnival is over. I guess you can’t count your Chickens before they hatch. But at least I learned the flamenco clap. I grab the boys and we slip off the train and walk down the streets clapping away into the sunrise:

Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez!


Carnival en Cádiz (Pt. 1)

I feel drastically unprepared for this. It’s 9:30 Saturday night and I’m drinking a calimocho in front of the station and watching the trains whisk thousands of people around the bay to Cádiz.

I should have taken a siesta this afternoon. My costume is decent. I am dressed in loose pants and a shirt covered in Hindi excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, trying to pass off as an Indian. Derek, another local English teacher, is dressed as a detective. Zubin is wearing street clothes with a 2€ plastic mask on his face. And Taylor, our CouchSurfing host, is wearing a ski jacket and holding a Mexican wrestling mask under his arm. For better or for worse, the four of us have banded together for the wildest celebration of Carnival in all of Spain.

I heft our bottles of rum and wine as we enter the station to greet the rest of the gang: about ten other English teachers from across Andalusia and Alicante. We take a few pictures while we’re all together. Our group won’t survive intact once we arrive in Cádiz.

Everyone is buying round trip tickets for the train. The first train back to El Puerto leaves Cádiz at 4:30 AM. The station is buzzing with anticipation. I try to imagine the return home from Cádiz. Some blurry late-night retreat from the sunrise. More likely wet and shivering on the beach or bobbing in the Atlantic.

The train arrives and we all rush onboard. It swells as more people board at each stop. Now we are all pressed against each other chest to chest. I’m standing next to two Spaniards, one dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte and the other as the Pope. They are chain-smoking doobies of chocolate and have effectively hot-boxed the entire train.

I am squeezed between the other passengers and the walls of the train and our rhythms all synchronize into one throbbing pulse rising rising rising with each passing station. My face is pushed against the cold metal walls of the train as it whips clockwise around the bay. It is as packed as a Bombay local train at rush hour, and if they’d opened the doors we would have hung out the side of the train just like the Indians.

I make a joke that the only place with any space remaining is in the bathroom. We all laugh, but then a group of girls goes into the toilet and never comes back.

We finally arrive at the station. Ya esta! Ya esta! they shout. Everyone is spilling out of the train when suddenly I hear a loud THUD! and a girl behind me starts screaming. I turn and find Napoleon Bonaparte sprawled on the ground with his eyes rolled back in his head and his tongue flopped off to the side. I think he is having a seizure and pull out my pen to wedge between his teeth.

One of the American girls behind me yells Someone call 911! and her friend is screaming, They don’t have 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE it! Meanwhile, the Pope drags Napoleon off the train and down onto the platform.

Then Napoleon is back on his feet, dazed but smiling. The Pope tells me that the chocolate had gone to his head. I smile and hand Napoleon back his hat. Within minutes the doobie-smoking-dictator is ready to re-attempt conquering the night.

So am I. We gather in the vestibule of the train station and make a futile attempt to reassemble our massive posse. A girl says that I don’t look Indian enough. She rubs a little lipstick on her finger and smears a makeshift bindi across my forehead.

Then a collective gasp sweeps across the entire train station and from the corner of my eyes I sense the crowd start backing away from me.

I look up. Taylor and I are alone in the middle of a gigantic circle of onlookers. Taylor is finally in his costume. When taciturn Taylor told me that he was going to put on his costume, I didn’t realize that it would entail taking off all his clothes.

There he is, standing next to me in the freezing cold wearing nothing but some teeny undies and a Mexican wrestling mask. The Spanish have never see anything like it. In Spain most people are terrified of being perceived as ‘ridiculo’ – walking around in whitey-tighties is just not done.

Therefore Taylor is an instant hit. Todo del mundo is yelling Joder! Mira a este tio! Taylor really looks like a wrestler. He is Taylor no more – he has transformed into El Luchador.

People are a-pointing and cameras a-flashing, but we have to get a-going. I run into the circle, break through the ‘Madre mia!’s, pull the rock-star off the red carpet and sweep him out of the station.

It’s no use. We’ve only advanced fifty yards and once again he is surrounded by onlookers. He is turning every head with in a 50-foot radius. ¡Que cajones tienes, tio! they shout, ¿No tienes frio? El Luchador’s incessant photo-shoots are preventing us from going anywhere.

But it doesn’t matter. Our buddy is the most famous guy in Carnival and we all leech off his parvenu status. We’re like Turtle from the early seasons of Entourage as we walk down the street introducing ourselves as friends of El Luchador.

We push him through the crowd and he parts the sea of people like Moses. Everyone is just turning their heads and stepping out of his path.

We’re at the edge of a main plaza now. It is the size of a football field and it’s overflowing with people, pouring groups of costumed Carnivalers down side streets and into cafés and bars. I put my hands on my friends’ shoulders and let out a deep breath of satisfaction. We made it.

“Jesus, guys. It’s only 10 PM,” I say, “We’ve got over six hours left to go. Bust out that rum and let’s mix ourselves some Cuba Libres.” I dig through my goodie bag and pull out the supplies: two bottles of Coke, and a few cups – but no rum.

It’s my fault and everyone knows it. I must have forgotten a bag when I’d gotten off the train. Napoleon’s pseudo-seizure threw me off. I offer to buy more rum and we push through the crowd in search of a liquor store.

Everything is closed. The bars have barricaded their doors and are selling cañas of cerveza and ham and cheese bocadillos – the fuel of Carnival. No liquor stores in sight. We’ve lost all the rest of our group and now it’s only me, Zubin, Derek and El Luchador. We find a store and someone goes inside to re-supply. I hang outside and watch the crowd pass by.

Cádiz is abuzz with an army of Smurfs, 100 Ali Babas trailed by 4,000 thieves, 300 Musketeers and more Dukes and Marquis than I could Count.

It’s pure bacchanality. One enormous, nationwide, institutionalized sin before Lent. Everyone laughing and strolling the streets with drink in hand – a macro-bottellon.

My friends come back outside with the rum and we fill up our glasses. Derek offers me a bag of lemons and I reach inside and snatch one up. “Hey!” he says, “Don’t be so cocksure with my lemons!” He throws me an accusing glance. “And let’s put all the rum inside one bag so we don’t lose it again.” I ignore him and turn to address the others.

Vale. ¿Listos?” I ask, “¿A donde vamos?” Someone suggests we go to Plaza de something-or-rather and we plunge back into the seething tangle of alleyways.

We approach a plaza even larger than the previous. We have to link arms to stay together through the crowd. We pass a drunk American with her finger in one ear and her phone in the other, yelling,

Where are you guys?!? I’m lost! Do you see a…a sign or…or a building or something? I see – What? I said, I see a big church and… and there are a lot of people dressed like jesters dancing on a tractor! Where are you…?”

¡Egads! ¿Jesters dancing atop tractors? ¿What on earth could she be talking about?

Then I see what the poor girl is referring to: a large pack of chirigotas, the wandering groups of guitarists and singers that make Cadiz’s Carnival celebrations famous. I’d seen a few groups earlier, wandering amidst the party like 15th century minstrels caught in a time warp. But this was the first time I’d seen so many of them at once, and dancing on a trailer no less.

The tractor swings around the corner before me, hauling a trailer full of chirigotas singing with great élan. There must be twenty of them, all dressed as some sort of jesters with costumes exhausting every color of the rainbow. A dozen or so singers wrap around the edge of the trailer on all sides and encircle five guitarists who float above them on a platform. The guitarists strum their Spanish guitars with a flamenco rasgueado and sing along with the rest.

I focus my attention on the singers. Most of them are quite drunk yet they maintain their panache. They sing, not in the sloppy way we Americans might sing “Friends in Low Places” at a Karaoke bar, but with a dignified drunkenness. You can almost hear the sherry swishing around in their bellies as they sway in unison. They slur articulately with their left hands on their hearts and their right arms extended before them holding their copas in the air in a perpetual toast to the good life.

They are dressed in the same clothes, singing the same songs and all equally drunk, but each man is slightly different. Each has his head cocked at a different angle, his arm raised to a different height, his voice tuned to a different pitch, and his eye winking at a different muchacha in the crowd. Music, style and movement all harmoniously composed. Not a touch of discord coming from the whole drunken lot

The tractor fires up again and starts moving towards a nearby plaza. A drunkard stumbles into the road and pauses directly in the path of the chirigotas. He is incredibly disheveled. His ski jacket is stained with the mud, blood and booze of a night he will never remember. The tractor honks its horn and moves closer to him but he is oblivious. He is preoccupied with something in his pants and has both his hands wedged elbow-deep into his unbuttoned jeans searching for Dios sabe que.

As I watch the fool standing in the plaza and unknowingly squaring off against the tractor it seems like some absurdly comic re-enactment of Tiananmen Square. I can see the headlines now:

Yesterday, on the second day of Carnival in Cadiz, one man, drunk as a skunk, felt he’d had enough wine and decided to take a stand against his fellow revelers. He courageously stood before a band of chirigotas and refused to move. Their tractor was about to run him over when suddenly he shouted, ‘¡Ya! Enough! The forces of fun and merriment have carried this party too far! What we need is solemn sobriety! Go home chirigotas! Thou shall not pass!’ But it was of no use. An plain-clothed officer from the State Ministry of Bacchanal filled up his glass and definitively crushed this nascent party-pooper movement…

The tractor moves off and disappears into the crowd and we run into some of Derek’s friends: a cute blonde and her effeminate male companion both wrapped in pink, blue and orange boas and trying to pass off as a Chickens/Hen duo As we are introduced, the Chicken and I lock eyes. I call for a new round of Cuba Libres and a toast. We look for the bag of booze but once again we are all empty-handed.

¡Me cago en la leche!

(See Part 2 for the rest of the story)