Friday, July 15, 2011

'Human architecture and furious rhythm ... geometry and anguish'

– Federico Garcia Lorca

(image from Wikipedia)

Back in Australia, Til and I are involved in this project with my favourite lecturer Dr Merlinda Bobis called the Transnational Story Hub. It’s about the fact that there is rarely an opportunity in the world for one community to interact with another community in another country without having to resort to the totalising, distorting avenue of the national, the governmental, the corporate, the global. It seeks to redress this absence and facilitate a means of community–community engagement rather than community–nation or nation–nation.

As a part of this project, we have to collaborate with other students, lecturers, and community members to create a radioplay; that is, a purely aural text. To familiarise ourselves with the form, we listened to one of Merlinda’s own radioplays, which was about the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca and the city of Granada. When we told Merlinda we were Europe-bound, she urged us to visit Granada, and I’m so glad she did, because it was the only place we’ve been that rivals Amsterdam in terms of beauty, culture, and experiences.

We arrived in the city, which is located in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía, after a day-long bus trip from Madrid. It was probably nine or ten at night, but summer solstice was approaching, so the days were getting ridiculously long (something I love; I'll never understand those daylight savings haters), and it was only beginning to fall into pinkish gloaming.

Despite a bus so overcrowded that it struggled to get moving again everytime it stopped, and the fact that we each had to lug twenty-something kilos of baggage up a hill to get to our hostel, we had a great first impression of the city. 
 The crowded bus. Gotta love the Spanish mama in the bottom left she was jabbering away so enthusiastically, Mediterrenean hand gestures and all.

It felt immediately unique, aestival, and frenetic: dirty confetti in the gutters, festive street banners and lighting and throngs of people (including nuns in every hue and unaccompanied children as young as five riding around on scooters) attested to an impending public holiday we hadn't known about; a combination of factors on the bus (the smell of a cologne I used to wear on someone else in its very close quarters, the teenaged couples indulging in public displays of affection) was redolent of the excitement of being a teenager, of the summers of ’05, ’06 and ’07; and we happened to be staying in what I think is the most beautiful part of the city, the Albaicin, which is the old Moorish quarter, so our ascent, though acclivitous, was at least eye-pleasing.
 An Albaicin street.

The key factor I think, though, which set our Granada trip apart, was the hostel we stayed in, the Makuto Guesthouse, which is our absolute favourite so far. It wasn't exactly luxurious in its amenities – the bunks were stacked somewhat claustrophobically, one on the floor, one in the rafters, and one sandwiched between, and the showers only sputtered hot water (of all places, you need to be able to have a cold shower in Granada), but it made up for it in so many other ways. It had a decent kitchen, free wifi and breakfast, a sweet-as chillout room with a PS2, a guitar, boardgames and bean bags; a central courtyard with a bar; a hammock deck; shady hidey holes all over the place for lazing, and even a freaking treehouse!




But the main thing was the atmosphere, 'the vibe of the thing'. The staff were casual to the point that you’d hear them arguing over who had to go and check in new arrivals. The hostel was really small, and they introduced you to all the employees as they showed you around. Something about the place makes everyone say hi to each other and get talking, like you were automatically friends just because you were staying there at the same time. 

In fact as soon as we'd both put our bags down and had showers, we were on the hammock deck chatting to two Australian guys, an American girl and an Englishman. Later two more girls, a Frenchwoman and a New Zealander, came by and after a quick talk invited us to a bar for tapas. Just that easy haha.

The tapas in Granada was incredible and always free. In that place the first night, you ordered one drink and got a fricken cheese sandwich and a plate of chips. I had three of them thanks to the eating habits of women.

'I want free of dem.' (On second viewing, this is actually pretty racist. Especially with the label on the video, 'Leave your Aboriginal jokes down the bottom!' or whatever it said).

The six of us eventually got seats and a second round, sans tapas because we couldn't have fit it in. There was Ellie the New Zealander (possibly 'Allie'? Who can tell with that accent?), who'd been nannying in England for a year, Adélie the Frenchwoman, a French Literature student about to start Masters, Charlie the Englishman, a graduated Architecture student, and Joe the American ski-instructor, (I think?) and alcohol enthusiast. There we were, innocently learning all this about one another when an absolutely off-his-face local started talking to us in Spanish. Adélie was the only Spanish speaker among us (damn Europeans and their multilingualism), so she did the translating/fending off. Apparently he thought I was a son of a bitch, but he didn't mean any offense to my mother, only me, and he thought my mother 'had art', whatever that means. He also said that our translator and Til were beautiful, but that Ellie/Allie (Ollie? Illie? Ullie?) was scary, probably because she was having none of his shit and kept telling him to go away. 

Eager to capture him on camera, I took this covert picture of Til with him in the background:

But even in his state of thorough inebriation, he saw through my ruse and wanted me to take another picture, doubtless to ensure that I got his good (drunk and leery) side:

The guy between a very uncomfortable-looking Adélie and Charlie.

The next day we ventured out in search of a supermarket for cheap food to keep in the kitchen, Charlie leading the way because he knew where one was. We hadn't known how big the festival was going to be until we ran into a parade and a crowd of onlookers.

'Parades just bring out so many emotions in me: joy ... excitement ... looking.'

At first it seemed to be formed solely of formally dressed families bearing artefacts of religious iconography, but everyone seemed to be watching intently. We couldn't work out what the fuss was over.

Everyone was taking photos, so I assumed it was fine, but later on when I uploaded them to Tintin (my laptop, named so for its metallic chassis), I noticed this woman death-staring at me. I guess I wouldn't wanna be photographed in an outfit that hideous either. Snap! (I actually have no idea of the quality  of that outfit, I just sensed a burn and went for it. Although it is somewhat Vicky Pollardesque).

'Don't be givin' me evils!'
(Image from

 Love this big surly Spaniard blowing bubbles.

And then it became clear what everyone had been waiting for. Everyone started clapping and taking photos as this gigantic chunk of religious fervor solidifed shambled down the streets on the shoulders of what must've been a bunch of zealots to be carrying it in that heat. I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of aliens or something watching us and thinking 'wtf?' It's like all this grand metalwork and flowers and bells and what's in the top? A small piece of bread. 'Ooooh it's the sacred piece of bread! Bow down before its might!'

 This slimy specimen was rushing around muttering holy phrases and touching as many children's heads as he could while trying to keep up with the pace of the parade. Also notable is his purle-haired companion.

 It was cool how excited everyone got over the mayor. We haven't even had one in Wollongong for three years and no one seems to care.

Eventually we returned to the hostel bearing a less than favourable assortment of foodstuffs because everything had been closed due to the festivities. Nevertheless, Adélie, Charlie, Til and I were able to cobble something surprisingly delicious out of it.
The seemingly disparate but surprisingly compatible ingredients. This was supposed to be a 'before' shot but, as usual, I forgot to get an 'after' one.

After lunch the four of us took a walk up to the Alhambra, the fourteenth-century Moopish fortress-palace that overlooks the city. I mean Moorish, Moorish. 

 'Moops!' 'Moors!' 'Moops!' 'Moors!'

You have to book tickets days in advance or else show up first thing in the morning, neither of which any of us (save Adélie) had done, but you could access the gardens and this cool amphitheatre for free:

The path up to the Alhambra has two streams of water running down either side of it, with benches along the way for you to sit on and dangle your feet in. It was an awesome, and pretty, little addition for a place as hot as Granada (it'd been over forty everyday; one day I left my copy of Anil's Ghost out in the sun and it was so hot that the glue in the binding melted and the first forty pages fell out) and we sat there for probably like fifteen or twenty  blissful minutes. Small things, indeed.

 The path.


That afternoon we went on this Granada graffiti tour with one of the hostel's employees. There are murals all over the city, especially in the old Jewish quarter, mostly painted by this one guy (whose alias might be 'El nino'?) who has a real love-hate relationship with the local government, having been both fined and given awards by them. It's really funny to me somehow that they might punish him now, but his stuff is really beautiful and artistic, as you'll see below, and if it only lasts like, a hundred years, I'm sure they'll be protected and lauded as symbols of the city.

Spot the giraffe.

The tour was pretty exacting, and the last leg involved climbing a massive hill up to Sacromonte to descend down some graffitied stairs, but everyone except the guide, his friend, one other dude, Til and me were too exhausted so it was just us. The walk was tough, but the view and the artwork were so awesome when we finally reached the top that it was well worth it.

A bit of simulacrum: a real lamp, the shadow of a real lamp, and the painting of the shadow of the real lamp.

But the other reward we got for our perseverence was even better. We reached the bottom of the stairs and were just on our way back to the hostel when we passed an older man sunning himself as he read out the front of his house. He began a conversation with us, asking each of us in turn where we were from.

'America,' our guide replied when it was his turn.

'There are many countries in America,' said our interlocutor. 'North America? South America?'

'North America,' our guide laughed. 'The United States.'

'The United States? Which ones do you mean? The United States of Mexico?'

The guide pursed his lips at the game. 'I'm from the United States of America.'

So he was eccentric, but nice as well. And fascinating. I think his name was Manny. He ended up inviting us into his front garden, where we drank from a fountain of fresh mountain water and admired a Porsche he'd been given as a gift by two German friends of his. Next he gave us a tour of his house, which was built into the caves. It was absolutely COVERED in pictures of Mirra Alfassa, the founder of this city in India which is supposed to 'realise human unity.' The movement sounded pretty cool, except that to live there you have to be 'a servant of the divine consciousness', whatever that means. I'm sure it's some vague pluralistic shell religion that accommodates all beliefs, but still.

Mirra Alfassa, aka 'The Mother'.

One of the few images in the house that wasn't of Alfassa was one of Carlos Santana, who we were told was our host's second cousin!

The last room Manny took us to was a small prayer chamber. He asked if we could observe ten seconds silence as a prayer for the world, and we obliged. He asked us to form a circle, then rearranged it so that Tilly was at its head, for symmetry because she was the only girl. He rang a gong, and after ten seconds he said something along the lines of 'Divine spirits of the cosmos, let there be peace, joy, love, truth, beauty' and any other banal hippie noun you can think of, haha.

The whole time our guide had been fidgety because he obviously hadn't accounted for this detour, and he was s'posed to be back at the hostel already. Manny wouldn't let him leave though, scolding him, 'Don't be in such a rush all the time.' We eventually escaped, however, and were left asking ourselves what ... the hell just happened?

Manny and me.

That evening we went for paella and sangria (our favourites) with AEIOUllie, Joe and his Australian wife, whose name I forget, Adélie, Charlie, and another Englishman named Johnny at Plaza Larga, the twelfth-century Moorish marketplace. In the square we vacillated between continuing on to find somewhere else or eating there, when this large, vicacious woman danced up to us and insisted we sit down at her restaurant. No one objected, so we just followed her.

She didn't hold still long enough to get a decent photo.

These little girls were dancing to the music in the square, and got all excited and giggly when thy realised we were watching them.

We finished the night with some delicious mojitos back at the hostel bar, 'cause Joe, his wife and Ellie were leaving early the next morning and Charlie, Til and I had to get up early for Alhambra tickets. We were also exhausted. I'm pretty sure that day was summer solstice, which makes sense because that day and the ones around it seemed to go on forever. By night time we could never work out if what we'd done in the mornings was the same day or the day before.

The next day when we were getting ready to head up to the Alhambra, we ran into Andy, one of the Australians from the hammock that first night, who said he'd join us. The palace was incredible. Every surface was intricately carved, tiled, or painted. Water had been brought into every aspect of the building, with beautiful fountains and opulent garden ponds everywhere. It was obviously a status symbol back then to have so much water around.

There are birds everywhere in Granada. These ones were circling the courtyard at great speed.

This was my favourite water feature: water-filled handrails for the stairs. If I'm ever rich, I'm so having these.

At one point when we were walking around, we asked Andy what he did. He told us he was a drummer and, since he knew we were from Wollongong and Sydney, he started telling us the places he'd played in the area like the Oxford, the Brass Monkey, the Oxford Art Factory and stuff. 'What was the band called?' we asked eventually, thinking it would just be some band.



'Whitley Whitley!?'

'Yeah, I forget when I meet Australians over here they might know it,' he said.

How crazy is that? Just, y'know, hangin' out at the Alhambra in Granada with the drummer from Whitley. Then he told us the other Aussie from the hammocks on the first night was the bass player! That arvo when we got back, after cooking up another storm out of disparate ingredients with Adélie, we spent like an hour or two lazing through the hottest part of the day in the hammocks talking about Australian music (us missing home), and asking him about which bands and artists he knew or had played with, which was pretty much everyone considering how big Whitley is and how small and Melbo-centric Australian music is.

Putting the French girl on omelette duty was a wise decision.

The spread: bread and butter; roasted almonds; chopped tomatoes with olive oil, garlic salt and black peppercorns; omelette; tuna; salsa pasta; fruit salad; and a jug of the finest chilled Granadin water.

Some time earlier, Adélie had expressed disappointment at the quality of the Moorish teashop she'd visited, saying she'd expected it to be better than she was used to at home in Paris. Since then I'd emailed Merlinda asking for suggestions on where to go, and she happened to mention As-Sirat, an authentic, traditional Arabic teashop frequented by locals and removed from most tourists by the anfractuous route through the streets needed to be taken to reach it, despite its being recommended by Lonely Planet and several other websites as the best teashop in Granada. Needless to say, I suggested we check it out.

When Merlinda had been in the city making her radioplay, she had been interviewing Leila, the owner of the shop, about Lorca (apparanetly the poet is so loved in Granada that you can ask any stranger on the street about him and be responded to enthusiastically) when  she had pointed to another man sitting in the café and said to ask him about Lorca because he was a Lorca actor. The shop then became a little theatre, with the actor performing from Merlinda's book of poetry and all the patrons listening. Sadly, nothing quite that cool happened during our visit.

Yeah, nothing in that picture is in focus ... but the iced tea was delicious!

Andy, Til, Adélie, Jonathon, Charlie and me.

After As-Sirat, we walked to the other side of the city to visit the Lorca museum, which is situated in the poet-playwright's old summer house in the middle of a park. It was boiling at this point, and as we walked, Til and I couldn't believe that the landlocked city existed without a beach. For us, that type of heat is synonymous with the beach. It felt like there was a beach just around the corner at every turn, especially here:

With the icecream stand and the pavement, it felt like there should be a beach just on the other side of the park.

Alas, when we finally reached the museum, it was closed due to the festival going all week.

The exterior.
So instead we decided just to have an afternoon laze in the park, where we had a little group nap, watched a tiny kitten mewing and following us around, and a blind woman with a guide dog walk repeatedly around the park. We hoped her dog wasn't misbehaving and extending its park trip.

That night we had more tapas, and more drinks at the hostel bar. We'd planned to have another early night, but when we were still in the courtyard at twelve, the time reception closes, the lady on reception told us we could only stay if we were really quiet, and asked if we wanted to accompany her to a bar nearby where all the locals hang out. Against our better judgement, we did just this, and had a decent time. The bar was cool. It was festive in a way I've never seen in an English or Australian bar, where everything seems to be more about looking good and being cool and getting drunk and hooking up than actually going crazy, dancing, and having a ball. It would've been fantastic to join in if we weren't leaving the next morning, but we did have some restraint and were conscious of the fact that, if we wanted to dance we'd have to get sufficiently drunk to lose our inhibitions first, and a hungover twelve-hour train trip to Barcelona the next morning on less than four hours sleep just didn't seem worth it. 

Walking home from the bar, we cursed ourselves for already having bought the train tickets. If we hadn't we definitely would've extended our stay in Granada by at least another night. It had been amazing, and we never wanted to leave. If you're going to Spain, do yourself a favour and make the effort to get down to Granada and stay at the Makuto Guesthouse because you definitely won't regret it!

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