Thursday, August 19, 2010

It Must Be Election Time

Elections are always an exciting time for a political geek like me. There are always the tell-tale signs that election day is drawing near. The coolness in the evening air, the changing of the leaves, and the Republicans trying to scare up irrational fears about brown people, and to exploit tragic memories about September 11, 2001 for political gain.
To their credit, this seems to work. It's not always race issues, and not necessarily about 9/11, but they always try to find a wedge issue. In 2004, for example they had all sorts of people scared to death that the gays were going to break into their homes, force them to sign divorce papers, and proceed to have their way with their teen-aged sons. The result, the GOP won the election, and 11 states amended their constitution to bar gays from marrying.
This year's election cycle is proving to be par for the Republican's Boogey Man, Election Day course. The fear mongers at Fox News and the folks at the RNC have calculated that, facts be damned, they were going to create hysteria to drum up votes. Luckily for them, they had a big win with the racists "Papers Please" immigration law in Arizona. Despite facts to the contrary, they made it look like the immigration problems in this country happened over night, that the federal government under Republican rule had somehow secured the border until Jan 21 2009, that immigrant communities didn't have record-low crime rates, and that we had an invading illegal army raking havoc on society, decapitating farmers and having their way with their teen-aged sons. The immigration discussion is very complex, and I think I will leave further words on the "debate" for another day.
I wish to address the hullabaloo du jour that has been festering in the hateful bowels of the GOP for this election. By this, I mean the alleged "Ground Zero Mosque." This has apparently been a gold-mine for the "thinkers" and strategists in the GOP based on the huge amount of air time the the issue has received. It has brought up emotions from victims of those who were involved in the heinous acts of that horrible day, and has allowed them to act like they are emotionally invested in their pain, while those who wish to build the GZM are heartless, and insensitive to their suffering.
Let's set some facts straight first: One, there is no "Ground Zero Mosque." The proposed building is to be a 13-story cultural center known as Park 51. Similar to a YMCA which serves for recreation, education, and happens to have area dedicated to prayer--like a chapel in many recreational facilities. Also, the building will not be located at Ground Zero. It will be two blocks away. In my neighborhood or yours, two blocks may seem nearby. However, in the concrete jungle that is New York City's financial district, one block may as well be a mile. It won't be possible to see the WTC site from Park 51, nor will Park 51 be visible from the WTC site. No one going to that hallowed ground will see the "mosque" unless they actively seek it out.
People are up in arms about this issue, and the flames of intolerance and hatred are being stoked by prominent leaders in the GOP--most notably, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.
The problem with the opposition to building Park 51 is the assumption that because one group of Muslims wish to build this site, that they are somehow related to the murderers from 9/11. They say that a mosque would be a shrine to honor the killers, not differentiating those extremists from the vast majority of peaceful worshipers of Allah. This assumption would be similar to saying that all Baptists are murders because one of their extremists killed a doctor who provided abortions, or to assume that all Catholics are similar to the IRA in Northern Ireland, or, for that matter, that all Mormons have multiple wives. The assumption based on ignorance plain and simple--considering the source, though, it's pretty much standard fare.
What's worse in this chaotic mess is that people are suggesting that planners of the development abandon their constitutional right to build. They are suggesting that we limit the freedoms of others because it is a sensitive issue. The truth is, it's not a sensitive issue, no one would even know of Park 51 if it weren't for the agents of hate and their microphone being supplied by a media that thrives on sensationalism.
This country has from its founding been a bastion for religious tolerance and religious freedom. To take away a religious group's right to construct a building because the majority doesn't feel it is right it anti-Constitution, and frankly, un-American.
If the terrorists wished to destroy our way of life and ruin the freedoms we as a society enjoy, the mere fact that this argument is being made today is proof enough that our society is willing to throw away the rights we hold dear.
What's worse however, is those politicians who are willing to encourage the trampling of constitutional rights shrouded in patriotism all for their political gain. It's disgusting, and frightening.
I am reminded of the quote by Sinclair Lewis, and I will leave it as a closing thought, not to frighten, but to invoke thought:
"When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Catsup or Ketchup?

Either way, I've got to play catch up for all of my adoring fans (all one of you, if that).
Last I left you, I had left a three-post recap of the amazing trip Mel and I took to Spain and Portugal. The trip was amazing and has left us wanting more travel.
That leads me to my next point. As an FYI, I have been in the process of applying to the Foreign Service. This process began last November with my signing up to take the FSOT written exam. At that point, it reserved a spot, which would allow me to schedule the test in the February 2010 testing window (which lasted through the first week of March). I took the exam on March 3. A few weeks later, I was notified that I had passed. At which point, I had had to answer six personal narrative questions in 200 words, demonstrating experiences of when I displayed certain characteristics such as leadership, effective communication, etc. That step, known as the QEP (Qualifying Evaluation Panel or something to that extent), was submitted prior to our Spain trip, and I was notified that I passed about 1 1/2 months later.
I was then told that I could sign up between the dates of June 21 and June 26, for an oral exam to be held this fall. I did that, and now have scheduled my FSOA for Sept 8, 2010. If all goes well for that, I would only need to pass a background check and medical exam to be able to be listed on the register, from which I could be selected to serve as a Foreign Service Officer. Looking at it, it really seems like a ridiculously long process. But, I think it will be well worth it in the long run. To read more about the Foreign Service, click HERE.
More importantly, and also stemming from our trip to Spain...We're having a baby!!
Said child is set to be born around January 1. We've been told a few dates, so I say around just to cover my bases. I am really hoping, though, that daddy's little tax write off will show his/her smiling face in 2010, so I can have the tax deduction for the whole year. That would be a great, albeit belated, Christmas gift from our little child.We don't know what we're having yet. We'll be finding out on Friday--Friday the 13th at that, so I hope it's not a ware wolf or something like that.
So that's about it for the catch up. I'm sure there's plenty of other things that could be mentioned, but I just don't want to bother right now.

Friday, April 16, 2010

El Grande Adventura a Espana... Ole!! Iberian Peninsula Travelogue Part III

Monday, April 12, 2010:

On Monday morning, we had to check out of our hotel, Pensão Residencial Portuense, and take our bags to where we would be staying for our final two nights, the Ritz Four Seasons Lisboa (I know, poor us). What a difference a mile (and what I guess would be a few hundred dollars a night) makes. Thanks to some sweet hookups, we were able to stay in the room free of charge. This was a super-nice place. The doormen were in top hats and tails, they give you slippers and bathrobes to use there, and there was even a separate room and phone inside the bathroom for the toilet (and bidet—I was surprised it didn't play music). This may not be much to some people, but to a kid growing up in northern Utah, this is big time. It had a great view from the balcony, which allowed you to see for miles around. The only problem was that it was at the top of a hill, and the closest metro stop was at the bottom , so that would mean after a long day of travel, we would still have to climb to the top before getting there. That, however, was easily overlooked due to all the comforts provided.

After dropping off our bags, we hurried to the train station, where a friendly woman helped us to get our train fare to the nearby town of Sintra. We just missed the first train when we got there, and due to a strike, had to wait 20 minutes for a second (as opposed to 10 minutes on a non-strike day). The train took about 40 minutes and let us off a little bit outside of the major tourist sites. The town is a charming village where the royals historically would go to leave the city for a summer respite. There is the national palace, which was a royal residence, parts of which date back to the 1100s. And the surrounding homes are large chateaus where the nobles would go to be close to the royalty. We went on a self-guided tour of the palace, which was fine, and we were able to go at our own pace until we got stuck behind a huge group of Spanish tourists and their tour guide. Everywhere they went, they clogged the exits to the rooms, so we were stuck with them for half of the tour. Luckily, I can understand Spanish, but unfortunately for Melanie and the other five who weren't with their group, they were just stuck with the loud chatty group. After the tour, I overheard their guide saying that they had some free time to go wander around and she suggested that they go to a café, A Periquita, which Mel and I had already planned to do. Knowing we wanted to beat them there, we bolted off to make it in ahead of them. We ordered a traveseiro (pillow in Portuguese), a cream filled pie, and some queijados, which tasted kind of like buttered toast with cinnamon sugar. The Spaniards arrived en masse and soon the place was very loud, but still enjoyable.

Following our snack, we wandered around and found a tourist info place and got directions to get to the very top of the hill where the Moorish castle stood overlooking the village. We caught a bus that took us on some very narrow, windy roads, and finally to the top of the hill. We decided not to pay the fee of 8 Euros to go into the castle, since it was pretty much in ruins and we could see a lot of the outside without paying. The age of the castle was very amazing having been around for about 1200 years. The setting (of the town in general, but here specifically) was very magical. It seemed as though it was a sort of enchanted forest. This seemed to be more so the case when we went to our next destination, O Palácio Nacional da Pena. This palace was really a treat to see. The Romantic-inspired architecture was amazing, and the whimsical pastel coloring was fantastic. We (mostly Melanie) didn't want to pay the whole price to go in (12 euros). But we wanted pictures from outside, so we paid to enter the park, which had trails and different views of the palace and hidden oddities like a little pavilion and a statue of a warrior. At this point I was just amazed with the city and country as a whole, but we still were headed for more fun later in the afternoon.

We took the bus back to the train station. Across the street from there, we were able to get a bus that would take us to the coastal city of Cascais. We took the longer route which took us past the western-most point in all of Europe, Cabo da Rocha. The bus ride bordered on terrifying with a seemingly insane bus driver being encouraged to go faster by some Portuguese mad men cheering him on through the bumpy, winding country roads from a few rows back. After an hour's ride, we made it to Cascais. Needing a quick snack, we decided, contrary to our better judgment, but not wanting to wander looking for food, to get something from McDonalds. Ironically, after eating there, the queasiness from the bus ride subsided.

We walked to the beach and though it was quite warm outside, we decided not to swim since the water was frigid—it was the first week of April after all. It was unfortunate, because the water was perfectly clear and calm. We walked barefoot down the beautiful beach between Cascais and the neighboring city of Estoril. When exiting the beach there, we were "interviewed" by some local girls about "sustainable tourism" probably because we're the most obvious foreigners they had seen all day. I gave some lame answer to their questions, and will probably be laughed at by their classmates, but it was all in good fun. After that, we caught the train back to Lisbon, and went to our hotel to relax for a bit, and got a late dinner of pizza and fruity milkshakes at a place called the Bella da Impanema. We returned to the hotel and looked at the amazing view from there at night, which included going to the outdoor track on the roof.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010:

Our last day in Europe. We certainly didn't let that slow us down. On Tuesday, we went to the hillside neighborhood to the east of Baixa. The neighborhood is called Alfama, and it is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the times that the Moors ruled Portugal. It also has some of the hilliest terrain in the city. The Moors constructed a huge castle at the top of one of the tallest hills in Lisbon as a strategic lookout over the port and surrounding area. In 1147 they were ultimately kicked out, but their castle remains in amazingly good shape considering its age. The problem being, that getting to the castle was a bit tricky, leading us to many wrong turns and dead ends. However, a friendly neighborhood drunk gave us directions, and we ultimately found it.

After spending some time there, we found a place for a quick lunch, and went to look at a nearby church, Igreja São Vicente Fora, but didn't go in because we were not going to pay to see another church. After that, we went to the Pantheon of Portugal, which, with its blazing white dome, was one of the first things we saw flying in. Architecturally, it was one of the coolest things I saw on the whole trip. It apparently took more than 260 years to build, and was supposedly cursed, but they finished it in 1965, and now it holds monuments and some remains of famous Portuguese. Entrance to the building allows you to go to the top, just under the dome, and to go out, onto the roof, which was awesome. Unfortunately, while we were there, we saw some clouds gathering out across the water, which were coming towards us.

We left from there, walked down the river and up through Baixa looking for a few souvenirs. After that, we went to the hotel to organize some things, and take a break for a bit, and to wait out the passing storm. Then, later that evening, we went outside the old city center to the modern Parque das Nações, which, on a normal, non-rainy day looks like it would be a really cool place. It still was a lot of fun even though no one was out because of the earlier rainstorm. We were able to see the Vasco da Gama Bridge, which is one of the longest in Europe, and played around on some of the things they had there. After getting an interesting dinner (hamburger topped with a fried egg for me, turkey in a banana cream sauce for Mel) at the nearby mall, we headed home to go to bed as we had an early flight the next morning.

Lisbon was amazing. It reminded me of San Francisco with the hills, the cable cars, and the suspension bridge. The entire trip to Europe was amazing and I'm glad I had Melanie, my travel buddy, to take me along with her. She's quite the planner. She made all of this flow. We had a great time, and wish we didn't have to come back to the real world.

PS this is only a fraction of our pictures. They should be up on Facebook soon enough.

El Grande Adventura a Espana... Ole!! Iberian Peninsula Travelogue Part II

Saturday, April 10, 2010:

Our last day in Spain. From what I had heard others say, Madrid kinda sucked. I can understand why they may say that – it's a big noise city – if they hadn't gotten to experience the city like we had in the previous two days. We were loving it, but still wanted to see a few other things.

I had heard there were creepy baby head statues at the train station there, identical to the two in Boston. So I wanted to see them and come full circle. (I hope there aren't any other baby head statues in the world or I may have to go find them, as disturbing as it may sound.) We went to the train station where I had heard they were located. I asked a security guard, who had no idea about them and thought I was certifiably insane. After wandering around, I finally asked a very nice lady at the information desk, thinking that they're never going to see me again, and knowing that I wanted to find the sculptures, I didn't have much to lose. Sure enough, she knew where they were. However, they are in an area where only ticketed passengers can go at the station. This, you see, is the very station where the Al Qaeda attack in Spain happened a few years back, killing 191 people. However, we were able to see them through the door, and I snapped a photo, even though I wasn't able to get in. As this was the site of the tragic bombing, they also had a memorial to those lost that day. It was an interesting memorial. Just inside, all the names of the victims are listed on a plaque outside of a deep-blue room with a glass pillar in the center rising above ground which acts as the only light source. In the glass column, they have a paper cover with various quotes about the attack from around the world printed on it, circling to the top of the column. It was a very somber, and sad to think of the tragedy of that day. It made me wonder why after nearly ten years, we still don't have a 9/11 memorial in New York.

After leaving the train station, we returned to the hotel, passing Madrid's answer to Times Square, to get our bags and were off to the airport to catch our flight to Lisbon. I'll tell you what…an afternoon flight with a plane full of Spaniards and Portuguese is one of the loudest things a person will ever experience in their life.

There was a distinct difference between the two cities, noticeable right outside of the airport—yes, they're two different countries, but more than that. Where Madrid seems more arid, Lisbon is a city right on the water, and what a difference water makes to beautify a city. I was in love with the place on the bus ride to our hotel. The thing that bugged me though, is that it seemed almost too welcoming to English-speakers. As a Portuguese speaker, I don't mind if everything is in their language, however, I can appreciate that they want to help. To me though, it seemed as though they tried too hard. Still, I ended up having more than enough opportunities to speak Portuguese.

We made it to our hotel, a bare-bones pensão , with very little by way of decor. The room was supposed to have a single, queen sized bed, but instead had three twin beds, a thirteen inch TV with four channels that intermittently turned off while watching, and a bidet. There were two annoying flies that seemed to just hover in place as well. We eventually took care of them with my trusty baseball cap. However, the place was decent and clean. It was in a perfect location, just off of one of the main plazas in town, Restauradores. It was also right atop of the most popular place to visit in the city, the Baixa neighborhood, providing easy access from there to nearly any place in town.

Since we got in fairly late, we decided to look around Baixa, walking down to the Tagus River, and find a restaurant nearby. The area is very charming except for the number of people on the street offering to sell me hashish, pot, whatever you wanna call it. The age and years of pollution have also made the buildings there look a little dingy, but the underlying structures made for a place that I've certainly never imagined before. At the bottom of Baixa, very near the river, there is a great plaza and an arch that marks the start of the Baixa neighborhood. While taking pictures there, we heard a small scream from a tourist walking with her husband nearby. We quickly looked over to see her legs flying into the air as she tripped over a stone bench-type thing right outside the plaza. We struggled not to laugh as she was obviously not seriously hurt, but we were reminded of the Mel Brooks quote, "Tragedy is me cutting my finger, comedy is you falling into an open sewer and dying." We wandered around looking for dinner. Still feeling a bit miffed over the cost of dinner the night before, we were looking for something cheap. Oddly, there were many Indian/Italian combo restaurants to be found. Though we were intrigued, we never actually went in to one. That evening, we walked past the window of a restaurant that had some tasty snacks I recalled from my days in Brazil, namely a coxinha, which has shredded chicken, chopped olives, and a few other things in a potato-based dough, formed into the shape of a teardrop and fried. As I pointed it out to Mel, the waiter saw us looking in the window and came out with a menu. When he spoke to me in Portuguese, and we saw the price for the place was cheap, we knew we had a winner. We ended up getting two coxinha, and salted cod with rice and vegetables, a very common local dish, to share. I never order fish in a restaurant, but I certainly didn't regret that. It was very tasty – heavy on the salt and chopped garlic -- and the garnishes were a welcome change after not having vegetables for much of the three previous days. Afterward, we looked for ice cream, which Melanie said she had seen, but whereas this was not Madrid, and places close much earlier, every place seemed to be closed or closing. Finally, however, we found a place with an Olá brand (Good Humor in the States) ice cream freezer in a bar and we got ice cream bars to eat as we returned to sleep in our not-so-comfy twin beds.

Sunday, April 11, 2010:

Sunday started off great. We left our hotel and ventured to the bottom of the Baixa area to catch a bus to the Belém neighborhood of Lisbon. This was more difficult than we would have imagined as the system of busses and trolleys overlaps and led to some confusion for us. After asking a shopkeeper for some directions, we found the bus stop/trolley stop and got the first mode of transport to Belém. Sunday is a great day for tourism in Lisbon as many museums are free of charge. Historically, Belém was a different city, which served as a port in the time of the explorers and huge Portuguese shipping trade. It makes sense, then, that they would put the Discoveries Monument there. We first went to the monument, walking down the riverfront and passing many joggers as well as many fishermen trying to catch a tasty lunch from the river. However, based on the smell from there, I wouldn't knowingly eat anything that came directly from the Tagus. After the Monument, we went to the Torre de Belém (tower of Belém), which served as a sort of lookout in the shipping days. It was huge, and as it was free of charge, we were all over that place. We climbed clear to the top and took lots and lots of pictures. From the tower you could get a great view of the river, the suspension bridge nearby, and could see many sailboats that were heading out from the nearby marinas for a day of fun. After the tower, we went to the Jeronimos monastery and cathedral, built in celebration of Portugal's successful expeditions. It was housed on beautifully maintained grounds with nice fountains and gardens. After a wait for the end of the early mass, we were able to go into the church, where we saw the burial site of explorer, Vasco da Gama. The church itself was nice, but due to church services, much of it was closed so we didn't get much time to look around. Later, we went to find the Casa Pastéis de Belém, where we got their famous Pasteis de Belém, a tasty little cream tart. It's like flan but good in my opinion.

Rejuvenated from the tarts, we continued on, swinging by the Coach Museum, which sounded really lame to me until I saw a picture of the inside. And as it was free, I thought we should go in. Mel wanted to anyway, but thought I wouldn't like it. There, they have all sorts of coaches and carriages that had been used by Portuguese royalty. They were very ornate in detail, and the oldest dated back to 1619. The last coach in the museum was the one being used by the royal family in 1908 when the king and his oldest son were gunned down while his wife attempted to fight off the assassins. The coach still showed two bullet holes from the attack. Leaving the Coach Museum, we hiked up a very long hill to get to the Royal Palace in the Ajuda neighborhood. This palace was apparently only half-finished; from the outside you can see it ends rather abruptly, but given the dozens of sumptuous rooms, what more did they need? I wish we could have taken pictures inside, because it was quite a treat. It was just amazing to see how the other half lived there. The Newport Mansions in Rhode Island are amazing, but this was something else all together. By this time we were pooped, but we still had half of the day left. We were determined, though, to not walk much to get back to Baixa. We hopped on a trolley from the top of the hill near the palace, and caught a bus from where it dropped us off back to the hotel. Since we didn't want to get anything big to eat at that point, we swung by the local grocery store to get some apples, bananas, and some cookies. Also, I might note, that a bottle of water there was only 5 cents as opposed to the $1.50 it would be in a store here; a bottle of water in a restaurant would be much more, though – over $2 sometimes.

After a few minutes at the hotel, we were off to a neighboring area, Bairro Alto, to see some things there. Baixa, which means low, down, or bottom in Portuguese, is aptly named as it sits between two hills to the east and west. Bairro Alto sits on top of the western hill. There is an insane incline that takes you to the top. Luckily, they have a cable car/elevator that gets you there without all the effort. The director was a jovial chap, joking with many of the boarding passengers, many of whom were tourists. While climbing the hill in the car, he honked and motioned a runner who got pooped out mid-way to the top to get going—kind of a "you had to be there" thing. Once on top, we hurried to the Igreja São Roque, which was the earliest Jesuit church in the Portuguese world. The chapels in the church were very beautiful, and the most admired is the chapel of John the Baptist. I did find it funny, though, that the pictures in that chapel showed him pouring water on Jesus, which isn't quite what I remember the Bible telling me about the baptism, but I digress. We left, and next went to the ruins of a church which partially collapsed during the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. While walking around and taking pictures, we were approached by some dude from Senegal. It was unfortunate because we were in a corner, and there was no real easy way to avoid him, so we made the small talk, and I knew that it was a manner of time before he would hit us up for money. He did, however, have a different approach. He said it was his birthday, and that they give presents on their birthday. He tried to "give" me a bracelet and Melanie a necklace, but asked that we give him money. We continued to refuse, and only were able to rid ourselves of him after we told him we didn't want the jewelry and that we were going to leave it on the ledge right above a big drop to the bottom of the neighborhood below.

After that, we walked to a few nearby plazas, did some people watching, and took in the great views of the city below. While at one plaza, we saw an older couple walk by. Shortly after passing us, we heard a familiar squawk from the woman. We looked over as she was falling face first into the plaza beneath her. We hear a thud and saw the crowd react. This one looked like it hurt more than the night before—that and the fact that she was an older woman. Now we were wondering if we had some adverse influence on people strolling around us in Lisbon. We left shortly after and saw the offending storm drain that caused the fall. We wandered a little more, and by this time, my camera was telling me that I was out of room on my memory card. So I spent time clearing off duplicates and blurry pictures;by the time that was done, the battery on the camera had been drained. I knew picture taking would need to be limited, and unfortunately our best day was supposedly ahead.

El Grande Adventura a Espana... Ole!! Iberian Peninsula Travelogue Part I

Wednesday April 7, 2010:

After a late-arriving taxi from our apartment made us miss the shuttle bus to the airport, we were very anxious for what might be in store for us on our European vacation. However, with only a delay of 30 minutes, we made it to our flight with plenty of time to spare. The flight was mostly fine, barely half full with on-demand movies. The only slightly irritating aspects were the fact that they ran out of the chicken dish for the in-flight meal, the little old lady in the purple track suit who had a sneezing fit about three hours into the flight, her husband who was continuously wandering the aisle to get to the restroom, the non-dimming of the cabin lights for the night, and my late breaking residual NOVA allergy fit (AKA my own sneezing fit). We flew "through the night" with little activity to get to Madrid.

Thursday, April 8 2010:

We touched down at 7:30 a.m. having very little (read: absolutely no) sleep in what was supposed to count for a whole night, and made it through customs with no problems. We were then off to brave the amazing subway system of Madrid—seriously, this thing beats DC hands down, kick you in the face. We made two transfers and got off at the La Latina neighborhood in Madrid. It is supposedly one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, having once been the Moorish section of the city as well. The winding narrow streets and a misunderstanding of the location of our hotel left us wandering La Latina, looking in vain for a place for us to drop off our bags, which seemed to be exponentially increasing in weight with every hill we climbed. After about 25 minutes, a man finally stopped us and said, "Can I help you find something, because I've been watching you walk around here for a while." He directed us to the correct location and we soon found Doña Norma at the Abracadabra Inn on Calle Bailen. The quaint bed and breakfast apartment was decorated with an odd and charming assortment of hats, birds, and other Spanish-inspired décor. We dropped off the bags, but because check-in wasn't until 1 p.m., we didn't have a place to rest. So, we went off to our first activity, a bike tour of Madrid.

We made our way back to the metro and found a bakery where we had a small breakfast consisting of a crème and chocolate filled pastries, and we were told about a good place nearby to get churros and chocolate later on. We made a mental note. We took the train three stops to the Gran Via area to begin our tour with Trixi Bikes. With the two of us, there were six others on our English-speaking tour. Let me make myself clear that this city of 5 million people is not a bike-friendly place—at least not in the center of town. But with a little briefing by our tour guide, we were off on a nine-mile trek to discover the city. Early on, before we had gained the necessary confidence as a group, there was a split in the group due to some hesitation to riding in front of a moving vehicle on the bumpy cobble-stoned rodes. Melanie ended up getting stuck, and I found myself waiting, slightly panicked, for her while the tour guide continued ahead. She eventually came up the street walking her bike along, having narrowly escaped a hit-and-run. We hopped on the bikes and took off to reach the group, who eventually noticed we were missing about ½ mile ahead. From that point on, I was very careful to stay in first or second position in the group. I didn't want to be "that chubby guy who held up the group." That spot was left for the 60-year-old woman from Jacksonville Fl, who expressed an odd concern about Pizza Hut not being in Madrid.

We went to all of the interesting spots in the center of the city, and let me tell you, there were a lot. We saw the ancient temple that was donated to Madrid from Egypt, the Royal Palace, the city's main cathedral, the old neighborhoods and the oldest building in Madrid. We went on to see where Cervantes lived and died. We rode past the Prado and a lot of other places—it may be a blur because of the lack of sleep at the time. We ultimately ended up at El Retiro, which is their huge city park, and had a soda and some olives. We rode around the park and headed back to the bike shop to finish up. It was quite an experience and it gave us a chance to see a lot more than what you might normally see on a typical tour bus.

After the tour we headed to our hotel, and took a short nap. We got a briefing from Señor Eduardo, the owner of the place, who gave us a nice map and many suggestions on things to see/do while there. We left to go directly to the Prado since it was free from 6 pm to 8 pm. We walked around, saw some Rafael and looked in vain for Goya; it was cool, but seriously, after a while, there are only so many pictures of Jesus you can see before you're bored out of your mind (or maybe that was just me being grumpy from allergies and hunger). We left on a search for something for dinner. We couldn't find too much that met our criteria of being non-touristy, cheap, and with seating, but eventually we found a sort of bar that had some decent looking, fairly inexpensive stuff. I got a rundown of the menu from the waiter, which involved us both quacking like a duck. We ordered a tasty potato and rice thing baked in a tortilla, an empanada, and some bread with a cheese fondue. It was very delicious, especially on an empty stomach. We walked around a little bit and found the previously mentioned churros at "El Diamante" bar, which were delicious, and one order gives you a ton of them (we ordered two, not realizing this). Finally, we headed home, exhausted and ready to sleep after our first day.

Friday, April 9, 2010:

Today's activities involved a trip to the hill-top town of Segovia, which is about an hour north of Madrid. After Norma's breakfast of yogurt, pound cake, a roll, chocolate milk, toast and a grilled cheese sandwich (identical both days we were there), we took a bus from a stop within walking distance our hotel. The ride was nice, and allowed us to see a little of the Spanish countryside. It looks to be a pretty dry climate, but the mountains in the distance had some beautiful snow caps on them, and, according to our bike guide, offer some decent skiing.

We arrived at the bus stop in Segovia and promptly walked to the massive Roman Aqueduct at the edge of the city. At the top of the hill Melanie found a family of cats—her one true love. After spending what seemed to me to be an hour taking pictures of the furry, feral felines, we headed on to see more of the city. We walked down the narrow streets and came upon a small plaza which opened up to frame the city's amazing cathedral. We looked at a map and, upon my insistence, headedleft to find the entrance. We circumvented the entire cathedral and found said entrance about 50 feet to the right of where we began. A bit of a fail on my part. The gothic cathedral was very striking. The ornate exterior stood in contrast to the interior, which did have soaring, vaulted ceilings and stained glass but few frills. Our guide book attributed the less dramatic interior to the economic condition of the area around the time that it was being constructed, in the 16th century.

We explored the cathedral and were off to the Alcazar, or formal royal residence/fortress. The city of Segovia sits atop a mountain, and the Alcazar is perfectly perched above a steep drop off. The building is truly a visual treat to see. It is reminiscent of what you might imagine in an old fairytale. We descended the side of the hill the castle sits on, walked around to a nearby church and to the other side of the hill to hike up into the Júdaria, or former Jewish area of the city. This part of the city is known for its interesting use of stenciling on the stucco of the buildings. At this point, we were tired, and very thirsty. However, being in Spain, in the afternoon, nearly all the shops were closed. We wondered why for a bit, but then realized they were doing what we wished we could be, taking a siesta. However, at four, the bell rang, and the town seemed to come alive again. We bought a Fanta and had a drink in the sun at a nearby plaza. From there we began to wander back towards the bus stop in search of something to eat. The local favorite, cochinillo, or roasted suckling pig, was more food and cost more money than we wanted so we opted to not get it. Instead, I ordered a pastry at a small shop to hold me over until we had a bigger, better dinner back in Madrid.

Upon arrival, we walked to a lookout tower that was recommended in the tour book. What was not noted in the book, however, was that the observation/lookout building would be closed for construction. There were no signs about that either for the entire half-mile that we walked to it. So we walked back to the metro station, and headed to our hotel to freshen up before dinner. Luckily, we were just able to see the sun set on our last evening in Spain. From there, we walked around, looking for a place to eat, and snapped photos of La Latina. It's a very romantic area—very European with the many street side cafés. We really wanted Paella in Spain so we thought we were in luck when we found it reasonably priced, or so we thought. Sitting outside next to the oldest building in the city, we had a delicious meal, splitting a plate of paella and a pizza-like flat bread thing. The meal should have been about 22 Euros, but it was an hour later and probably a mile away that we realized our paying 35 Euros, plus a tip, was far more than it should have been. We wandered around the area near the Plaza Mayor, got some souvenirs, and found the Guinness World Record holder for the Oldest Restaurant in the World -- Botin. We didn't eat, but I took a picture. We walked down to see the cathedral and the palace, all lit up at night. After, we went back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.