Wednesday, September 29, 2010

La Mercè, Barcelona

La Mercè is the major Barcelona festival of the year, highlighting very Catalan traditions. Originally to commemorate the feast day of one of the city's patron saints, Our Lady of Mercy (24 September), the event has expanded to over three days of festivities. At the opening ceremonies on Thursday night, the huge papier maché figures known as gegants paraded and danced through the crowd in the old city. Over the weekend, the wines and cavas (sparkling wine) of Catalunya were exhibited in a festival along the harbour. Tasting was reasonably priced, and buying wines was pretty cheap - a reserve bottle for 6 euros!

Friday and Sunday we watched castellers representing each Barcelona neighborhood vie to construct the tallest human towers. The base is made with a sheer mass of castellers locked together (we should note that in our pictures, the first layer you see is actually the second level). Note the helmets on the kids - that's apparently because one child actually fell and died a few years back - and the castellers biting on their collars - that is so their shirt doesn't start to slip as someone is climbing up on their shoulders. It was an amazing spectacle... although admittedly, not for the faint of heart, as when the castellers start to shake and the tower begins to sway, the crowd is collectively holding its breath. We actually saw 2 different towers collapse, and everyone was okay, but seeing a pile of people including kids free fall from several stories high is just absolutely terrifying.

Another example of how gutsy - or crazy - Catalans can be is the Correfoc, or fire run. The Gates of Hell, ironically erected near the Cathedral, open with huge fireworks and drums booming. Diablos, again representing different neighborhoods, run around with torches and spray the crowds with fireworks. The streets are packed so ash and sparks are continuously falling on everyone, and apparently, later at night, the diablos actually start chasing people! In all fairness, the announcements for the Correfoc do actually carry a warning for wearing proper attire: long pants and long sleeve shirts of non-flammable material, hats, and goggles if you got'em (How is that for PPE?!).

The adjunct BAM festival hosted free concerts all three evenings in cool venues all over the city. We got to see Goldfrapp in the massive Parc del Forúm, Ok Go and Belle & Sebastian overlooking a historic Estrella Damm factory (brewed in Barcelona since 1876), and a couple of smaller bands next to a Christopher Colombus monument. One evening we went home at 3:30 am and were still considered early birds for it!

Even Pepper got a little into La Mercè festivities. The city park where we walk her was filled with special light displays, tapas stands, and a disco area. The fantastic laser show we wandered into near the entrance, which went off on its smoke and light display every few minutes, did make her suspicious.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pepper Gets A Move On

One of the big challenges of moving to Spain is bringing our dog, Pepper. If you do not want your pet to sit in quarantine for months (horror stories and poor survival rates), there are a series of seemingly simple steps you are supposed to take. In practice, it ranked pretty close to planning a wedding but not quite as bad as getting Richard a green card.

Timing is the most important. You should start at least 6 months in advance. Now, if you do not know where - or even IF - you are going outside of the country, as was the case with us, you are already behind because regulations differ from country to country. We assumed that eventually we might possibly want or need to bring Pepper to her grandparents in England, which is like the worst case European scenario for transporting animals. England does not have rabies in the country so Pepper needed an expensive rabies titer test and subsequent paper work. Oh, and hopefully, all of this was preceded by implanting a microchip of the appropriate standard - bet you didn't know there were multiple kinds? or that getting your microchip company to tell you which one you have is its own exercise in patience?

Even booking the travel requires the flight has room (usually only 1-2 spots) , is not during a weather embargo (so your dog does not roast or freeze), has a short total itinerary (since you won't get to see them again until the final destination), and each layover destination does not have its own restriction (dogs need a minimum of 6 hours for transfer at London Heathrow). Each airline has its own documentation as well.

Then there was the final check-up. Eight to ten days in advance Pepper went for her final exam with the vet in Indiana to get 2 forms filled out - one for the USDA (required by the airline) and one for the EU (with directions in Spanish and English). After the quick exam, I was suspicious at how long the vet's office was taking to fill out the only 3 pages of forms. I nearly ran out screaming when the vet tech said, "Oh, is Spain in Europe? I thought it was somewhere in South America." ... Really should I have been surprised to hear from the USDA that the examining vet's office mucked up the entire thing? The USDA blasted them for not even being able to consistently write the dates in the same format (dd-mm-yyyy vs. mm-dd-yyyy) on the same page! Another trip to the examining vet to pick up the "corrected" forms revealed glaring discrepancies even I could see, like an error in Pepper's microchip number. The full extent of the their complete incompetence was exhibited when it took three (!) revisions of the corrected forms - each one printed and stamped - to finally catch all the mistakes.

The appointment to hand deliver the forms to the USDA had its own hiccup. A quick call to our vet in North Carolina and fax back were all that were needed to get the precious embossed certificates.

The actual trip, by comparison, was uneventful. Pepper got to walk around with me until 2 hours before the flight out of Chicago. She learned how to drink out of her new guinea pig-style water bottle. I was nervous because I was not able to see her crate loaded on the flight out, but someone in Zurich checked on her for me. In Barcelona, an airline employee assisted me in wheeling her out, straight past customs in the "Nothing to Declare" line, and no one stopped us. After all the drama of getting her paper work, this did not seem right to me. However, despite repeated attempts to ask at Information and Security, they assured me that it was okay and they probably checked her paper work in Zurich. I find this fishy since the airline only took the USDA certificate, and no one saw or asked for the EU form - but I'll take it!

Our darling girl was none the worse for her 15 hour journey, other than being a little ashamed at wetting the crate. Later on Richard and I found that Pepper also was jet-lagged, excitedly wanting a walk at 4 am, which we thought was hilarious! I keep telling her she needs to not sleep so much if she wants to adjust.

One final note for detractors: We did make a conscious effort to include Pepper's welfare and well-being in our decision to move to Barcelona. Richard and I felt the relatively short-term difficulties of getting her into Spain will be far outweighed by our next 3 years here. Dumping her back in the shelter (unthinkable) or even with our parents would have been irresponsible ownership, and we are a family. She goes for long walks everyday and has already been to a couple of dog parks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Final Thoughts on our Asian Trip

Our trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and India was a great experience. With taking a "Gap Year" common in the UK, Richard felt like he had passed up every opportunity, and with American vacation standards, I never thought longer term travel would be possible. It is such a backpacker cliche to say any amount of time is not long enough, but it's true. Even in 10 weeks (5x what most Americans get per year), we still only caught glimpses. But they were beautiful and humbling and amazing and interesting and...

Here are the flotsam and jetsam thoughts:

Everyday Exotic Creatures

- In Siem Reap, it was great to glance out of your tuk-tuk and see a troop of monkeys in the forest bordering the road. A family also hung out around the roof of our hotel in Agra, and Rich only just missed getting the perfect shot of a monkey framed by the Taj Mahal.

- Even after a week at Elephant Nature Park, one never got tired of the occasional realization of "hey, that's an elephant standing right there" as you go about the more banal activities of life, say, waiting in line for breakfast.

- Throughout our trip, Pepper-like dogs hounded us - sorry, cheap pun. It would not be an exaggeration to say we saw at least one of her twins everyday in India! We decided either a) our girl was sending out her doppelgangers to check up on us or b) the more mongrel the population, the more common are brown dogs with white markings.

The Obligatory Toilet Commentary

I was surprised and very grateful for the prevalence of Western-style commodes in the places we visited. With proper prior planning, squatter use was kept to a minimum. Sometimes, you could even find the perfect trifecta of toilets: Western-style, toilet paper, and soap! If not, arming yourself with a bathroom bag (basic model: toilet paper + hand sanitizer, or the deluxe model: + immodium + cipro) is essential for peace of mind.

Rugrats, i.e. Traveling with Young Children in Developing Countries

Yes, it is true that most Asians, with our love of family, may enjoy meeting and playing with your child. This aspect of the cultures does not grant you freedom to indulge your flaky parenting style and get some free babysitting out of unsuspecting, probably underpaid and overworked hotel employees. A particularly heinous example of this we observed in an Aussie couple with their 4-year-old daughter in our homestay in Vietnam. While Mum was off on a trek, Dad decided to wander off to do some photography, calling over his shoulder, "Dakota, just hang out with them for a while. I'll be back later!" We looked around and to our horror, "them" was the four of us backpackers who were just finishing breakfast. Now, being decent human beings instead of, say, the secret axe-murderers and child molesters we could have been, we had just been thrust into babysitting a tot we only met the night before... instead of also being allowed to enjoy our own vacations. Dakota's precocious Shirley Temple charm already was wearing thin with her habits of sucking on a dirty comb and sticking her snotty fingers in the communal serving dishes. With parents like those, I suppose consideration of others was pretty low on her list of lessons to learn.

Photography (Other People's)

Sometimes photography can be an antisocial behavior like smoking. At the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, we were jostled constantly by amateurs who felt a giant lens attachment on their SLR camera entitled them to front and center seating. Nevermind that we all had arrived 4 hours before the event to get those seats! One woman even had the gall to cast dirty looks at anyone who jostled her tripod in the crammed standing room only section.

Expenses for Curious Minds Who Want to Know

The whole thing cost us about 12000 USD. Almost half of that were flights, many bought not far in advance of the departure. Hopefully, some of you can see this number and be inspired to go on your own great adventure.


Thanks to our families for being supportive and not freaking out too much. May I suggest less Andrew Zimmerman for next time? Special thanks to Mom and Dad for watching Pepper and my sister for watching - and not touching- the bank (just kidding, Ate!). Special thanks to Mum and Michael for the great shower, sleep, and steak and kidney pie (!) layover and Dad for bringing us back to Heathrow by dawn.