Friday, October 14, 2011

Ribes de Freser and Vall de Núria (Spain)

After eighteen months of quietly pining in storage, our tent was finally let out to play. Two hours from Barcelona on the regional train brought us to Ribes de Freser, where we caught the rack railway for a very expensive half hour ride. The destination was Vall de Núria in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French border... and by "on the border," I mean that you could get to France by foot in under 2 hours.

Vall de Núria is a mountain resort with extensive trails in the summer and ski runs in the winter. The valley also has a sanctuary (the original reason for its settlement) and posh hotel (so you can hike in style). As mentioned, we set up camp instead. At about 2000 m (~ 6600 ft) above sea level, the drop in temperature from still balmy Barcelona did come as a little shock. In the evening, we were layering under our winter coats and glad of low temperature-rated sleeping bags. Unfortunately, Pepper was less prepared, and all night we took turns re-tucking her in to stop her shivering.

The days, however, were quite fine. Perfect autumn weather actually. The mountains were some of the most beautiful we've been in. It was easy to see why so many people raved about the area - one couple we know even named their daughter Núria after the valley. The hiking was pretty technical, even on the flats, which explains the profusion of trekking poles we saw. Being above the treeline made for some incredible views, and it was hard to get "Climb Every Mountain" out of my head. I half expected to see a singing nun over each new rise. The gorge was dotted with pretty little waterfalls, and the quaint highland meadow made us feel like we had accidentally wandered onto the packaging of some Alpine cheese.

We're looking forward to going back!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

La Mercè & BAM 2011, Barcelona

Another year, another La Mercè! Barcelona, an already hoppin' place, explodes - literally and figuratively - with cool events for the major festival in honor of its patron saint.

On the way to the first stop in our jam-packed schedule, we just happened upon the most amazing light show being projected onto the Ajuntament (City Hall). With shout-outs to old school video games and incredible visuals warping the building in the style of M.C. Escher drawings or the movie Inception, Julie kept emitting squeals of excitement while Rich's jaw stayed permanently dropped. It was so awesome we came back a couple of nights later to video it. If you click on the slideshow of pictures, you can watch the video (it may take a little time to load).

Free concerts were hosted all over the city with the concurrent Barcelona Acció Musical Festival (BAM). The Excitements played retro soul, channeling Proud Mary-era Tina Turner. Quentin Tarantino would have loved Los Tiki Phantoms, who rocked surf instrumentals dressed in black suits with leopard-print collars and skeleton masks. The lead singer from Man Man (Gogol Bordello and Modest Mouse go to the circus) decided to put on a dress mid-show, looking disturbingly like Liza Minelli sporting a Sonny Bono mustache. Other picks included Wu Lyf (unintelligible lyrics but good music), Herman Dune (fun even without the puppets), and after waiting 30 minutes in the rain, a rousing Mando Diao.

The central Parc de la Ciutadella was a haven for the artsy phartsy. We caught the Saint Petersburg Ballet (La Mercè's invited city for 2011) performing Swan Lake around the big fountain and in the middle of the lake (on platforms!) in an excellent use of the park's spaces. The talented ensemble Hand Made demonstrated clever and fun storytelling, miming with only bare arms and a black light. A steampunk (modern day inventions made in a Victorian-style) funfair included a bar where the bartender serves drinks from inside a submersible, a merry-go-round, and a ferris wheel with an amusing selection of seats (e.g. a toilet).

We finished out our La Mercè festivities at the Correfoc (Fire Run). Drum corps from the different barrios pound out rhythms as the diablos (devils) burst through the fiery Gates of Hell lighting a ridiculous amount of fireworks. Appropriately attired members of the crowd (long sleeves, pants, masks, scarves, goggles, hats, and no synthetic materials) dance under the revolving showers of sparks... and those who didn't get the memo, er, run screaming to avoid burns. Giant monsters, including Cerberus the 3-headed dog from Hell, a very pissed-off looking pig, and various demons, also spout flames on bystanders. Everyone gets to play with fire, dance with devils, and go home reeking of gunpowder!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final Thoughts on Nicaragua

My Farmer-to-Farmer assignment with Partners of the Americas just flew by. Here are some odds and ends about my time in Nicaragua:

- Nicaragua was very pretty. Being on the move meant I was lucky to see a nice swath of the country. Even though I missed out on the famed beaches, the more off-the-tourist-trail highlands were gorgeous themselves. The tourism industry has not quite developed as much as neighboring Costa Rica (and the prices reflect that!), but I would suggest you run, not walk, to visit the country... and the food's delicious! Granada is more developed, but it is in the range of charming and still worth visiting.

- My pitiful Spanish couldn't hold up. Since my level is such that I need to actively listen to the person talking, my ability to concentrate pretty much petered out after about 2-3 hours. Combined with the difference in word choice (Castellano vs. Nicaragüense... think British vs. American English) and the accent (Central Americans swallow "s", for instance), I imagine there was a lot I missed. The gap in technical language was also significant. After all, in a general Spanish class, you might be lucky to learn words like "leaf" or "plant." Not so much "tillage" (i.e. "plowing" to civilians) or "scouting" (i.e. fancy word for looking for stuff in an organized manner).

- Radio stations that played music in English were amusing to listen to with early to mid-90's hits on heavy rotation. It was disturbing though how my memory - rendered so worthless in Spanish - was able to recall perfectly so many of these little lyrical nuggets. Gin Blossoms, anyone?

Finally, despite some of the ups (Someone else made their own yellow sticky trap! Woohoo!) and downs (the whole pesticide safety nightmare), I still continue to be impressed with what USAID is accomplishing with Farmer-to-Farmer programs. If I get another opportunity to volunteer, I will do it again! ... if Rich would let me :p