December 19, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel, Travels in Asia

“What did you like most about India?” – that’s the question on the tip of everyone’s tongues these days when asking me about my recent trip. And I continue to have one very simple answer: the Indians.

I’ve never encountered people so friendly and welcoming in all of my travels. Often not rich in wealth, the Indians I met were abundantly rich in happiness and warmth. It radiated from them as brightly as their vibrantly hued saris and shimmering gold jewelry.

What made this so especially meaningful was that it allowed me to engage with their culture in a way that I haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to elsewhere. We shared a mutual curiosity: They wanted to ask me questions, take pictures of me and with me, and I therefore felt comfortable doing the same with them. The result was a warm exchange between two cultures – one that left me humbled, awestruck and even perplexed.

This couple was nudging their son to step forward so that I’d take his picture

Perplexed because it made me wonder: if we could all approach those that are different than us with this same enthusiastic curiosity – the same happiness and eagerness to get to know – then what a different world this would be.

So while India offered me an experience filled with magical moments — the food, the sights, the music — it was the people that truly left the most meaningful mark on me. And it’s because of the people that I am certain I will one day return.

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March 30, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain

Yesterday, Spain’s workers went on strike for another huelga general (general strike) expressing their dissatisfaction with labor reforms. The impact of the protest did not go unnoticed – public transportation ran less frequently, many shops closed, and the city was basically blanketed in trash. Leftover bottles and cans from botellón the night before. Bright-red spray paint splashed across storefront windows. Piles of flyers strewn on the ground from strikers throwing them in the air like confetti. Sure, some of the trash build up was due to striking government workers not cleaning the streets, but, for the most part, it was a direct result of the event itself. Which makes me think: I’m all for freedom of expression, but does an otherwise valid message lose its credibility when it’s at the expense of trashing the city? Hmmm.

An unexpected pleasant (albeit, perhaps over-the-top) sight among the trash-covered streets.
November 29, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

Before last week, I’d had two country line dancing memories: learning it during PE in high school (seriously), and then one very bored night in college. Little did I know that my third stab at shakin’ it western-style would be the most memorable and awesome line-dancing experience ever.

And that it would be in Spain.

And guess what? There’s a video.

Brace yourselves, people, this is going to be good. So, so painfully good.

A few months ago I discovered a country western festival taking place near Madrid – a discovery akin to gold, calorie-less chocolate and a winning lottery ticket. I went by myself and witnessed one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I’ve had in Spain to date, but having witnessed it alone, I felt a bit robbed. I would need to return with others to both verify and revel in its legendary-ness.

Good thing my friend Michella is all about country and all about America (and baking cupcakes, and decking out her entire house every time a holiday comes around – LOVE this girl). So when her birthday rolled around, her only request was that a group of us chicas from the US go line dancing.

So we did.

About 20 minutes north of Madrid, in dark fields at the end of a sketchy pot-holed road, is El Encuentro – scene of my original discovery a few months back. We arrived for what they claimed would be an “authentic American dinner.” We also arrived in a mix of flannel t-shirts, jean skirts, cowboy-ish boots and new names: Peggy Sue, Sara Beth, Marge and Lu Lu May (that’s me!). Go big or go home – am I right?

But you know who went big? Like, really big? The Spaniards. Cowboy hats, belt buckles, boots and button-up shirts emblazoned with “Wrangler” and “Rodeo Champion.” They brought their whole families, and also a whole lot of cowboy spirit.

Seated below a giant American flag (obviously), we selected our orders from the extensive menu: the Grand Canyon nachos, a round of random burgers, and a couple of Coors. OK, so the burger tasted more like meatloaf than burger, but hey, still American, right?

Then the line dancing began. And hot dog, these Spaniards knew their stuff. The four of us girls just stared and giggled in amazement – part impressed, part confused, and mostly just embarrassed that these guys pulled off American way better than we ever could. But we weren’t going to let that stop us. At the sound of Achy Breaky Heart, we skedaddled onto the dance floor to demonstrate our electric-slide skills (which I do have, believe it or not).

As the dancing wound down, one of the owners stopped by our table to say hello. We told him it was Michella’s birthday and about five minutes later they brought out a surprise birthday brownie while the entire farmhouse sang “happy birthday” in English. No joke. This was followed by us taking pictures with Spaniards like we were an attraction at Disneyland. Who’s this guy? Who knows. Who cares. (And yes, that’s a tipi in the top left.)

We eventually realized that all good things must come to an end and that it was time to call a cab – that is, see if a cab would actually journey out to the countryside to get us. Before we found that out, though, José the bartender had offered us a ride home. Stupid? Potentially. But really, who were we to stop such a historic night from taking its natural course.

As the three of us piled into the backseat, my man José turned on the ignition, and the car filled with the familiar beats of 50 Cent. Marveling at the dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror of his VW golf, it became ultra clear to me that this night was one for the record books.

Back in Madrid’s Plaza Castilla, we parted ways – Marge and Peg mosied on home, while Michella – make that, Sara Beth – and I vowed to keep the night going strong. With that, we met up with her other friends at one of Madrid’s most popular bars, where people would inevitably stare at us and our ultra-American getups.

Having had a few drinks, I didn’t even realize the irony of the bar in Madrid that we ended up at that night. It’s called – of all things – Honky Tonk.

*It might be worth repeating from my previous blog – the Spaniards unfortunately don’t quite seem to grasp the meaning of a certain flag.

November 22, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Spain, Traditions

Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year travel community website for backpackers and gap year travellers.

Little over two months ago I packed my bags in London and prepared myself for one crazy ride abroad in Spain. It was to be quite the transition.

Winding up in the arid, wild lands of Extremadura, and ending up in the small-sleepy city of Cáceres, I quickly had to learn to leave all thoughts of the Big Smoke, Big Ben and all the bring-your-own-beer Vietnamese restaurants of East London behind. Adjusting to small city living? Quite the challenge!

But I survived. And you can too! Allow me to help you prepare and cast off the shackles of those big city lights forever. Start embracing small city living in Spain now!

Embrace the Fame in Spain
When was the last time someone said “hi” to you on those big lonely streets of New York, Toronto or even Madrid? Can’t remember? Hardly surprising.

Get yourself in shape for small-town Spain then. Stardom and all the trappings of a fame-filled lifestyle are just around the corner.

Here you’ll need to get used to being accosted in the street, screamed at by young kids and have panties thrown at you from apartment windows above (those flimsy washing lines are purely coincidental).

Ok maybe that’s an exaggeration. Being the new face about town probably won’t cause Beiber-like fever, but you’ll at the very least be a curiosity. Better do away with those cold city manners now.

Show some warmth right back at those neighbourhood greetings and you’ll slip right into community life without a moment’s trouble.

It’s no surprise “Buenas” is the most commonly used Spanish word after all! Let it be the first to slip off your tongue.

Embrace the Siesta Shutdown
Cast off of any expectation you have for those round-the-clock shopping sprees you had going on in that big city you used to call home. Here in Spain the siesta rules supreme.

In fact you’ll have to adjust your body clock too. Popping out onto the streets between the hours of 2-5pm is likely to lead you into believing you’ve walked on to the set of a zombie apocalypse film. It’s that quiet.

Start sleeping in the day and fit it around your work schedule. Living is for the evening in this part of the world.

And don’t expect to be able to buy anything on a Sunday either. We’re talking traditional Catholic towns here!

Embrace the Bus
Got into the habit of treating your tube or metro ride in the big city as a moment of peace and a podcast? You better think again with your move to small-town Spain.

Riding public transport is exactly, as its name suggests, a very “public” affair. Expect rowdy, noisy, laughter-filled carriages that no background-noise filtering headphones known to man could ever hope to block out. Not that you’d even want to try. People actually talk to each other on public transport systems in Spain!

Shirk off your cold city sensibilities, do away with your suspicion of strangers and get chatting right alongside locals as you hop around your new hometown. Fun!

Embrace the Poster
Gumtree, Craigslist and all those hyperlocal news sites may do the trick for snagging an apartment, selling old electronics or even finding a job in the metropolis you call home, but in Spain community networking works quite differently.

Long live the poster, the wall, the adhesive and small-town telephone boxes, public noticeboards and boarded-up shops. Here in Spain these are the true foundations of breaking neighbourhood news and the go-to information source of choice.

Get used to using them and putting your laptop down or your mobile away. The quickest and easiest way you’ll find out about what’s happening in and around town.

Embrace the (Lack of) Variety
Chances are if you’ve come from a city of over 500,000 people you’re pretty used to being spoiled for choice when it comes to kicking back in your leisure time. You better scale down those expectations for life in small town Spain!

You’ll be lucky to find a cinema in some places, let alone a bowling alley. What does that mean for you? You’ll have to find new hobbies and new ways of entertaining yourself of course. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Make the most of this great country and engage with the culture. Learn how to cook Spanish style, work on your language skills, even choose a Spanish football team to support and show up in a bar wearing the colours.

Keeping busy isn’t the challenge you’d expect, there’s plenty to explore in even the smallest of cities.

In fact making the transition from big city to small town living in Spain needn’t be tough at all. Approach it with an open mind and you’ll slip straight in.

There’s no going back to London for me.

November 10, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain

This latest guest post comes from one of my favorite American expats here in Spain: Stephanie over at theViatrix. She and I connected over Twitter, later discovering a slew of strange connections, both Madrid and not-so-Madrid related. Now we meet nearly once a week to write…make that pretend to write while we gab about díos knows what. A tour guide with over six years of madrileña life under her belt, she’s my go-to chica for input on all things awesome in Spain.

Erin asked me to write something for La Tortuga Viajera a while ago, and given our shared love of food and sugar, I immediately thought a blog on hot chocolate would be perfect. But it was August, and hot anything sounded awful. So now that it’s November and the weather’s getting cold, the time is right to start seeking out those steaming cups of cocoa.

First, a bit of background. While Switzerland may get all of the attention today, Europe’s chocolate history begins in Barcelona, where Columbus landed after his first voyage to the Americas. The court paid little attention to the mysterious beans until 30 years later, when Hernán Cortés proposed mixing them with sugar and spices to make the bitter Mexican drink more palatable. And Swiss Miss packets were born!

Not really, but Spanish monks did begin producing the yummy treat for members of the court, which had by this time moved to Madrid. Aristocrats fell in love with the sexy new drink (and perhaps with each other after drinking it) and Madrileños became so crazy for chocolate that they asked Pope Pius V to exempt the beverage from fasting regulations. “Liquidum non rumpit jenjunium,” ruled the Pope: “Liquid does not break the fast.” Is that why we say chocolate is “sinfully delicious?”

Spaniards managed to keep their discovery secret for almost a hundred years. That is, until Jewish chocolatiers began smuggling the stuff with them when fleeing the Inquisition. They first went to Portugal, where they were kicked out again, before finally settling in Bayonne, France. Here, in this relatively tolerant Basque border town, they started their own production, using beans brought back by the famously intrepid Basque sailors. By 1870, the industry had grown to employ more chocolatiers than in all of Switzerland, firmly establishing Bayonne as France’s chocolate capital (bet you didn’t know that).

Jump back to Barcelona, where the milling process had become mechanized in the 1780s, turning the city into Spain’s chocolate-producing center. You can even thank chocolate for one of Barcelona’s emblematic modernista buildings: Casa Amatller. During Barcelona’s boom years at the turn of the 20th century, chocolate magnate Antoni Amatller commissioned architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch to build him a house on the famous “Block of Discord”—it’s the one next to Gaudí’s Casa Batlló.

But let’s get back to the good stuff, and the point of all this: chocolate-drinking establishments. Chocolaterías start springing up in Spain’s big cities at the end of the 18th century, and become important meeting places for intellectuals in the mid 1800s. This is also the period in which people decide it’s necessary to dip something doughy and delicious in the chocolate, driving each region to develop its own specialty. In Madrid, that means churros, fried sticks or loops of batter invented specifically for dunking. Today, churros con chocolate is the quintessential Madrileño breakfast (or post-club energy boost).

Barcelona has chocolaterías as well, but more interesting are the granjas, or milk bars, which spring up at the end of the 19th century. Who cares about dairy products when we’re talking about chocolate? Well, when your hot chocolate comes under a mountain of thick, unsweetened, freshly-whipped cream, you care. Barcelonians call this a “suís” (“suizo” in Spanish) and it’s amazing. Since churros are very un-Catalan, I like to eat mine with an ensaimada, a light and airy pastry snail, though many people would maintain that melindros (Catalan lady fingers) are more authentic.

And what about Bayonne? Well, rather than the dark, almost pudding-like Spanish hot chocolate, they whip up a super-frothy cup of the stuff, call it chocolat mousseux, and serve it with buttered toast. It may not be as thick, but it’s just as delicious—and all that butter doesn’t hurt either. 😉

If you’re traveling around Iberia and want to know which are my favorite chocolaterías in Madrid, Bayonne, and Barcelona, head over to theViatrix for my list of hot chocolate spots.