Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Couch Surfing

Surfing on a sofa?  Does it sound like a foreign concept to you??  Well, its actually quite a popular new movement thats going on.  The idea is that an online community communicates via internet to look for places to sleep while travelling - but not hotels or hostels, right on people's couches.  Hence, surfing the couches.  Say you are going to south of Spain, but don't want to pay for a hotel...what can you do?  Log onto couchsurfing.com and find a free couch there and contact the person and ask if you can stay.  Voila, if they say yes, you've got free lodging and a local to show you around.  Sounds pretty crazy huh?  Just letting someone you don't know come into your house, sleep in your spare bedroom or on your couch and have breakfast with you?  Well, I agree, it kind of caught me off guard the first time I heard of it, but then Joseba and I hosted a 'couchsurfer' for the first time, and I have to admit, it was a good experience. 

On the website, each person has thier own page, where they can list interests and such.  On this page, people also leave comments about how thier stay with you was.  So, if you see someone was a super jerk and locked you out or something, you obviously won't contact them to stay.  Joseba's profile shows that he is interested in music, sports, and that he has a spare bedroom for couchsurfers.  So, awhile back, a guy named Wijnand Boon, contacted Joseba through the website explaining why he wanted to stay in Orio.  Apparently, the Queen of the Netherlands said that social media (like facebook, blogs, couchsurfing, etc) is making man more detached from his fellow man.  With that in mind, Wijnand set himself on a mission to prove her wrong.  He has challenged himself to make a pilgrimage to all the 3 major pilgrimage spots of Europe - Santiango de Compostela (Spain), Rome and Jerusalum walking.  Yes, walking.  And how will he manages to do all the lodging via social media, to show the Queen that although yes, social media cuts down face-to-face communication, it CAN bring people together. 

So, after contacting us, we said yes and prepared for our first 'couchsurfer'.  We picked him and his massive backpack up at the town square and took him home, where he was happy for a hot shower and meal after a long day of walking.  Over dinner we talked about his mission, history, music, art, just everything.  A real nice guy, it was a bit strange letting him stay awake to check his emails and such while we went to bed.  But, for some reason, we trusted him.  The next morning, at 6:30am we awoke and everything was still as it was when we had went to sleep.  We hadn't been robbed by a crazy Dutch man.  I made breakfast while the boys got ready and we had a half-awake conversation at the breakfast table and then headed out.  Before setting off on his next route, he took a photo of us to put on his website.  You can tell its about 7am!  Later that week, he posted on Joseba's couchsurfing page that it was a pleasure to stay with him and that he was a great host - and two thumbs up for an entire spare room insted of just a couch! 

The other day, an article popped up on my Time Magazine website (which I read religiously).  It was about couchsurfing!  It talks about one guy's experience with couchsurfing and how well it turned out.  It's not just saving money, its about a new way of travelling. It also delves a bit into how instant trust, like we developed with Wijnand, can develop.  If you are interested in it, click HERE.  Reading it, I thought it might be an interesting thing to share for those who might not already know what couchsurfing is!


Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

Good morning everyone!  It's Friday morning, the one weekday that I don't have to catch the bus early for work or go to Basque class, so what might I be doing?  Well, I am heading off to volunteer at a shop down the street from my house called Intermón Oxfam.  Listed as the largest NGO in the world, I volunteer in thier shop selling fair-trade items from around the world.

Formed in 1956 as a religious project aimed on helping in Bolivia, Paraguay and India, the organization gained more force in the 70s as it worked for social change in countries around the world.  In 1997. Intermón joined with 14 other groups and formed Oxfam Internacional - which is how it is now today, or Intermón Oxfam (the Spanish branch of the organization).  By doing this, they sucessfully were able to call themselves the largest NGO and now work in 46 countries around the world.  Since they are a large organization now, they make quite a big impact, and although I am only a little part of it, I am happy to do what I can.  What I actually do is work in one of the free-trade shops that guarentees products that were purchased with a fair wage and equal working rights between men and women.

I learned about the massive organization because I myself was a shopper at the store where I now volunteer.  I found out that they sell biological fair-trade coffee and tried it and liked it.  While I am not saving the world, I think paying a bit more for my coffee so that the person who made it gets a fair wage is important.  Throughout the store we have tons and tons of things, things that each time I dust or ring up, I realize more of which I want to buy.  From hand-made instruements from Asia or children's toys from Latin America or hand-sewn scarves by women in Africa or hand-carved wooden games from South America, all of the things I see, I love.  In a genius marketing move, a lot of the packaging has a photo of a person who 'could' have made your product.  There is a certain face for the coffee I buy (a nice black man wearing South American dress) or the biological rice (a South American woman with a beautiful smile).  Other things are marked with a sticker that states which country they were made it.  In the end, with the Indian or South American 'mood' music in the background, the brightly colored items decorating the store and the free-samples of delicious biological and fair-trade chocolates, its a dream place to volunteer.  Well...it's a dream until one day I end up buying the handmade leaf covered notebook, the stunning red glass vase, the simple but lovely scarf, the key chain of little stones, the colorful picture frame or tons of ecological pasta!  Then it will be like I'm paying to work there.  And although there is a recession, I guess I try to remind myself that there is a recession everywhere, and if I can spare a few extra Euros, then I would rather spend it on a fair-trade item that I need (food, coffee, etc) than the newest T-shirt on the market. 

Other ways that Intermón makes a difference are through Development - in which they create long-term programs to get rid of poverty and demand justice.  They also respond to emergencies with volunteers and aid in times of disaster.  And it seems they always have a campaign going - always trying to raise awareness of how the world can change for the better.  This weekend, the campaign I will be helping with is called the Project Tanzania - and is set up to help combat the drought that they are suffering.  With aid and a year-long help program, Oxfam is working to help Tanzanians back onto thier farming feet.  With the activities planned throughout the year, it is estimated that 4,300 people will be directly helped and as a result of that, more than 70,000 will see the positive results. 

This weekend in San Sebastian, there was a huge tourism convention, with booths from around the world.  We were offered a free booth to sell the fair-trade items and inform people about the organization.  So, of course I signed up to help!  Bright and early Saturday morning, I headed to the convention center and as soon as I arrived put on a volunteer shirt.  For part of the day I worked helping sell items and the other part of the day I helped in the 'kids area' of our booth assisting a bunch of children to make windmills and pins!  They loved them!  The best is that the parents let thier kids stop and make a toy and then they have to wait around, so what do they do?  Buy things from the shop.  At the fair, I didn't know practically anyone, so I made a bunch of new friends - some right around my age!  Two girls, Nerea and María work on Fridays like me, but in the afternoon, and we are already talking about on Friday night meeting up after thier shift is over.  So, not only did I get to help volunteer, but also met some nice people.  In April, there is another festival that we can sign up to volunteer for, and you bet your bottom dollar, I'll be there!

Overall, I am very happy and proud to have become a member of a meaningful volunteer project.  While I am just starting, I am yearning to learn more and participate in more campaigns throughout the year.  I am happy to share with you all, the link to the website of Oxfam International HERE.  This is the English website, so you can all enjoy.  But, for those of you who trust your Spanish, here is the website of the wing of the organization that I am part of by clicking HERE. 


Thursday, March 10, 2011

A shattered American Dream

Last weekend, Joseba and I went to Madrid to meet up with some friends of ours who we were meeting from London.  I stayed over until Monday to do some things at the Embassy and had been somewhat formulating an idea of what I expected the Embassy to be like when I arrived.  Well, all of my ideas were WAY off and I hate to tell you, but I was rather disappointed!

Here is how I had imagined it:  I'd walk in, under the Stars and Stripes, maybe I'd hear some of the National Anthem or atleast see someone saying the Pledge of Allegiance (I guess I was hoping someone's job was to say it all day, and of course even though I am out of practice, I'd join in) and then as soon as I'd enter the doors there'd be some roller-skating (think A&W circa 1950s) cheerleaders in Uncle Sam costumes, maybe some cowboys, etc.  I was also hoping for a Starbucks giving away free carmel macchiatos or an open breakfast buffet of potatoes and gravy, meatloaf, corn on the cob (I mean, I know I know, impossible).  In my wildest dreams I also hoped for maybe a huge couch in front of a massive TV showing a football game (none of this European football (soccer) crap.  I was dreaming of AMERICAN football!).  While watching a few minutes of the game, I'd eat some sour cream and onion Lays chips (impossible to find here) and drink a Dr. Pepper (equally difficult to locate in Spain).  I was hoping that it would be like a lil clubhouse - where everyone happens to speak my American English and understand my silly sayings .  Maybe there'd even be a blow-up doll of Barack and Michelle that I could pose between. I guess I was just imagining a little American microcosm in the middle of downtown Madrid. 

Talk about a dream-crusher.  I arrived and had to wait in line to enter the 'grounds' but before that, had to go through security.  I mean...in the movies if the police are running after you, you just have to make it to your embassy right?  You cross onto American property and you're olly olly oxen free no?  Well, if I were being chased by Spanish police (which we already established are quite fearful) I'd had to have waited for some time, give up my electronic devices and show my American passport to enter.  Pretty sure the Guardia Civil would have time to catch me in that slow-moving process.

So, who cares, the entrance wasn't as grand as I had hoped, but for sure, entering the actual building was going to be awe-inspiring.  Again, wrong.  It looked like the DMV, except that in one of the windows was a uniformed man.  That was about the closest I saw to anything that I saw in my dream of the Embassy.  But I didn't even get to GO to the window with the military man, I had to go to the window with the Spanish citizen who spoke only OK English.  I had YET to hear my accent in its pure form and I was already in the door.  No music, no Barack dolls, no flag, no accent.  Surely disappointing.  After receiving my number (see, just like the DMV), I passed into a waiting room with probably 100 chairs.  Turns out, if you don't have a European Union passport and you want to visit the States, you more than likely have to apply for a tourist visa, and to do that, you have to come, in person to Madrid for that.  So, the waiting room was full of foriegners!  GASP!  I wanted some Harvard hotties, some Nascar fans, some cowboys, some men in suits, some sorority girls or anything that would give me a glimmer of the good old US of A!  Nada.  Yea, it must be said in Spanish because that was the language  I mostly heard.

When it was my turn, I was happy that my notary clerk did 1) have a legit American accent and 2) knew that Washington is a state not just a city.  She explained the forms I needed to fill out in beautiful American English and then sent me on my way to fill it out.  When she charged me for my notarized documents, she first told me that amount in dollars!  Eventhough I was paying with my Spanish bank card, I was happy to know how many dollars I was spending, although it was quite a high number.  Next, I waited some more in the not-at-all American waiting room until my number was called again for me to pick up my forms from the Consular.  She also spoke American English, and get this, I actually THANKED her - not for signing my expensive piece of paper, but for speaking my English.  I mean, I speak English all day here, but never with an American.  She kind of chuckled and said, yes it is always a relief in a foreign country to hear your own accent.

With all the fanfare (miliary suit and 2 American accents) over, my time at the Embassy came to a close.  After picking up my camera, cell phone and ipod at security, I walked right back onto the street - no handshakes, no God Bless Yous, no fireworks, nothing.  So, what's the best thing a disillusioned American can do when feeling homesick and incredibly disappointed by her Embassy?  Some of you might have answered get McDonald's, but that I did not do.  No, instead, I got a Starbucks coffee.  I mean, in my dream it was free and served by a green-apron smiling person, but instead I ended up paying for it but enjoyed it just the same. 

Although I was sorely surprised with how mundane the Embassy was, I am quite happy all the paperwork got sorted out.  I am sure some day I will have to return again, but atleast now I won't get my hopes up.  Maybe though, I will wear an American flag T-shirt or pin an American flag pin onto my lapel, to atleast zest up the place a bit and make it feel like home sweet home. 

Kisses!  Big American kisses or I could just say xoxoxoxoxo (also very American)

PS- after a few questions about if this blog is really serious, I would like to say that it's a joke.  a big silly blog :)

Monday, March 7, 2011

A run-in with the police!

So, I would say I am quite a upstanding citizen.  I don't do anything illegal and I don't harm anyone else.  So, it may seem hard to fathom that awhile back I had a run-in with the police that resorted in me having to get out of the car while they searched it.  We all know I don't do drugs, so what in the heck could the police have been looking for and WHAT in the world had I done?

Well, these aren't just any police, these are the Guardia Civil - the Spanish police or Civil Guard.  Like the States, each 'state' of Spain has thier own police force that takes care of the community.  However, because Basque Country has a 'terrorist group' called ETA, a seperatist and nationalist group that has been fighting for an Independant Basque Country since 1959, Spain feels it necessary to place national police in the area.  You might have heard of them in the news - bombs or kidnappings.  In total since thier start they have killed 829 people in thier attempt to have Basque Country liberated from Spain.  This is the reason that the Guardia Civil are in Basque Country - constantly to keep an eye out for possible terrorists or links to the secretive ETA.  Dressed in dark military-looking uniforms and always holding guns (to me they look like machine guns, but I am a girl and have basically no idea what kind of guns they are just that they are big, no pistols here).

My first taste of the Guardia Civil was when I first arrived and there was a demonstration in the street.  These green uniformed men scared me to bits with thier guns and I couldn't understand what warranted such a weapon for a peaceful protest.  Since then I have seen them from time to time.  They often set up road blocks and monitor each car that passes - looking in the windows to see if they see anything they might consider terroristy.  I have even had them board the bus with thier gun, staring at everyone's face.  Quite scary if you ask me.  Well, this brings me back to the day with the run-in with the police.

After our amazing trip to Sweden, Joseba's brother and sister-in-law came to the airport to pick us up.  On the way home, we saw the road block but didn't think much about it - they are everywhere and it just becomes commonplace.  However, this time was different.  They stopped our car, asked Iker (Joseba's brother) who was driving a bunch of questions - where were we coming from, how do we know each other, where was a flight landing from, etc.  Not satisfied with his answers, he asked us to all get out of the car and leave all belongings in the car and to hand over our identity cards or in my case my passport.  We were then told to stand with our backs to the car about 100 meters away in silence while they tore the car apart looking for something that could be suspect.  I was scared out of my wits.  Things like this don't happen to me and my head was somersalting around, terrified they would find a reason to take us to jail or send me home or something miserable.  On top of everything, the whole event was of course in Spanish, which when I am nervous I don't comprehend perfectly.  After about 25 minutes standing outside, the police man handed us back our identity cards and we were allowed back in the car - of course under the watch of many gunned men.

Back in the car, we were able to each take a deep breath.  For them, this has happened before and wasn't so shocking, but the most interaction I have ever had with a police officer is getting a speeding ticket (us Americans, we are always in a hurry!) so this was a whole new ballgame or me.

No matter how long I live here I don't think I will ever get used to the constant police presence.  So as many jokes as we make about our cops - donut eating and all - I definitley would prefer them to armed and masked Spanish Guardia Civil!

But no worries, in the end I didn't get into any trouble - nothing to put on my rap sheet.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

An apple a day

I am getting along quite well in my Basque class.  We just had a midterm exam and I got a 38/40, so am quite pleased with that.  Imagine how excitd Joseba was!  I've promised him that one day I WILL speak Euskera and here I am making progress - be it slowly but surely.  Anyways, along wtih memorizing verbs, saying sentences a 5-year old would scoff at and racking my brain, my Basque classmates have all formed a group bond.  We often chat a bit after class and sometimes even get coffes together.  So, it wasn't completely out of the ordinary that one classmate (Jose Marí) suggested that we all get together one night at a sidrería - to do all things Basque - eat, drink and be merry (while speaking Basque of course haha).

Last week, 9 of our class, including me, headed to a cider house (sargardotegi in Basque) for a fun night.  Before I wow you with the scrumptous food and the refreshing cider, I want to tell you a bit about sargardotegis and where they come from.  First we will start with the word sargardotegi.  In Basque sagar means apple.  Ardo means wine.  And tegi means 'place where something takes place'.  So, all together sargardotegi can be roughly translated to -place where apple wine takes place.  Rough I know, but it makes sense because at these huge buildings which are a cross between a bar and a restaurant along with a wine cellar but the wine is made from apples!

So, these sargardotegis house this delicious Basque cider which has been part of this culture for years and years.  In fact, the Basques fondness for apples shows up in documents all the way from the 11th century.  The King of Navarra in that century mentions sending an envoy to the Basque region and mentions apples and cider-making.  Beyond that, in a pilgrim's 1134 diary, he mentions that Basques talent for apple growing and cider-making too.  An inquistor in the 17th century coined the 'land of the apple' for the Basque Country and various books mention the Basque fishermen's preference of thier cider to water while on long whale-hunting trips.  History books tell us that the vast apple orchards used the be picked by the entire community.  This way, even if you didn't have an apple press you were guarenteed some of the delicious drink.  Nowadays, apples are picked with a long tool that has a nail-like point.  Traditionally, the apples were brought to a two-story farm house and on the top floor were pressed with a quite-advanced contraption at the time, which pressed all the juice out of the apples and caught the liquid and on the bottom floor it was bottled in large barrels to ferment.  Now though, machines do the heavy work.  But the proess after the smashing is still the same - the liquid goes into a huge barrles (think about 250 gallons) of oak or chesnut for a fermenting process to 1) turn the natural sugar to alcohol and 2) to get rid of the sour taste of the apples.  Apple-picking goes on during the month of September, October and November and finally on the 19th of January, the sargardotegis open thier doors and let all the cider fans in with the officially opening day of cider season.

Most sargardotegis, along with the one we went to, have a large dining room where you normally eat standing up and the 'kupela' room - or the barrel room.  Originally sargardotegis were just for testing the cider and then when you left you would buy bottles of the cider from the barrels you liked most.  Nowadays, it is a dinner and social event, but still with the old-time drinking right from the barrel cider.  The meal always starts off with little pieces of txorizo - a sausage - along with some bread.  Next comes a cod omellete and of course bread.  Out of the kitchen comes cod normally served with some green peppers.  And then a txuleta - a huge steak that is practically still bleeding but oh so good.  Last but defintiley not least is the dessert - Idiazabal cheese (a Basque sheep cheese that is very strong) with membrillo (a sort of apple jelly that you cut in pieces and put on top of your cheese slices) and some nuts (that you have to crack yourself - either with your hand or the table).  A very-filling meal is punctuated with many trips to the kupela to fill up the glass of cider.  THe thing is that you never actually fill up the glass - instead you catch about two or three drinks worth of cider in your cup, normally drink them in the kupela room and then go back for more eating and talking.  This is where the 'standing up eating' comes in handy because you are always free to go to drink some more cider!

The cider drinking tradition lost a bit of speed when Navarra upped thier production of wine.  And cider was practically dead during the Spanish Civil War when most people abadoned thier orchards, but since the invention of Sargardo Egun (Cider Day) in 1981, cider has made a huge comeback.  This still-cider (not sparkling) is mostly made in Gipuzkoa (my county) and over 9.5 million liters are produced annually (about 2.5 million gallons).  Only 10% of that is drunk in sargardotegis, the rest is bottled and bought in stores to enjoy at home!  Which I do too!

That night, our group of 2 grandpas, 2 moms, my roommate and our 29-year old Mexican friend and a 30 year-old guy, our teacher and I enjoyed a delicious meal (although at 33€ a pop is quite a hefty bill) and some tasty cider - varying from sour to sweet.  And we did manage to throw some Basque words into the mix.  The two most important words were:  txotx (pronounced choch) which is the cider-makers call that he is opening a barrel and to come and fill up your glass and topa (pronounced toe-pa) which is the Basque way of saying cheers!  My favorite line was Azkena which means 'last one', which is what everyone was saying each time we'd take a drink of cider.  It was so delicious you just have to say 'one more, one more'!

As you can see, my Basque class isn't just about crazy words and off-the-wall grammar, but a nice group of fun people always ready to live the Basque way - by eating like a God, washing down your food with a incredible drink and talk talk talk.

Muxu!  (kiss in Basque)