Friday, December 22, 2006

Etxachar: Decorations with Tombstones and Bizarre Stores

Standing in front of a map with irregular squares with numbers written in Euskera, we tried to figure out the name of the Church we had just visited in Etxalar , a small town in the north of Navarra, Spain.

But it was mission impossible. The map had no logic. The names did not belong to the streets or the places. "Maybe they were different family names," we speculated. However, non of them was duplicated. Consequently, we decided to enter the town’s shop to ask.

Inside the store, everything was bizarre. The shopkeeper wanted to make sure that her clients could find everything they needed, and due to the shop’s limited space, she chose variety over order.

To pick up an ice-cream, we had to look through salmons and oysters that were stored in the same fridge. We had to be careful not to get our fingers caught in the mouse traps that were sold next to the chocolate cookies, and when we got to the register, we had to control our sweet tooth so we wouldn’t buy Christmas sweets in the middle of march.

The store lady cordially explained to use that the map showed the names of the town’s houses. She said that since the town had only 800 inhabitants, it was easier to remember the names of the houses than the street names.

She also revealed to us that no one was buried underneath the tombstones that were scattered along Saint Mary’s Church's front yard. “One day, the current priest found them in a corner of the Church collecting dust, and he decided it was better to use them to decorate the Church than to keep them inside,” she told us.

Although I doubt I will adopt this strange decorating technique, I take with me a little magic from this town of enigmatic stories.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pious Walk the Javieradas while we Drive

While pious walked for more than 40 kilometers to reach Saint Francis Xavier’s Church to celebrate mass, my friend and I drove to the church.

Even though it sounds bad, we did not mean to do it.

On Sunday, we got together at a friend’s house, picked up the map of Navarra, Spain, and some brochure with pictures of the area. After looking at them, we decided to drive to Saint Francis Xavier’s Castle and Leyre’s Monastery, without knowing the Javieradas (pious' anual walk to Saint Francis Xavier Church) were taking place that same day.

In Saint Xavier’s Castle, we visited the room that Saint Francis Xavier shared with Saint Ignacio of Loyola. We also looked through the window where the novices flamed their handkerchiefs to communicate with the gentlemen that walked through the parks.

In Sangüesa, the biggest town in the east of Navarra, we walked along the river and admired the wooden door of The Real Saint Mary’s Church, decorated with delicate, but complicated motives. However, we simply took a quick look at the impressive door since it was almost impossible to remain in that city longer: the strong odor that emanated from the industrial area was unbearable.

Finally, we enjoyed the magnificent sight from Leyre’s Monastery and enjoyed the Gregorian chorus.

It was a perfect trip to recharge our lungs with fresh mountain air, to fill our pupils with green prairies and snow covered hills, and to put a pause to a high speed weekend.

More pictures:
Saint Francis Xavier's Castle

View from Saint Francis Xavier's Castle

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Challenge: Pepsi vs. Wines

In this occasion, I am not going to argue if Wine is better than Pepsi or vice versa. Although you have no idea how much these products have in common.

Surprisingly, the fabrication and bottling process of both products is very similar, even though its ingredients and end product are extremely different.

On one hand, to make Pepsi, chemists first prepare a thick syrup that they later use as the base for the product. On the other hand, to make wine, farmers place the grapes in a large distillation bin where it ferments with the skin that taints the wine with that maroon color. Afterwards, the wine is left aside to settle. When the skin begins to float and it can be removed.

On the second stage, the syrup used to make Pepsi is stored in large vacuumed barrels to allow the taste to concentrate. While the wine is kept in wooden barrels where they incorporate some of the taste of the wood. (In the case of the wine, the type of wood and the age of de barrel determine the taste that the wine will acquire).

At the end of both processes, the liquids are bottled, labeled, and packed in boxes my automatic machines that follow very similar processes. Different ingredients, similar fabrication processes. Different products, yet at the end of the day, wine and Pepsi are distributed to the outlets in almost identical cardboard boxes. Who would have thought it could be hard to distinguish a bottle of wine from a Pepsi?

Once at the store you would have to face the Challenge: Pepsi or Wine. Although, if you are living in Span you might pick up both to prepare the traditional calimocho, and take home both beverages with you.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Beijing, China: Country like Life, City like Contamination

When you cross the street in Beijing, you have to watch out for cars, specially the black ones, which usually belong to public officials who pay little respect to traffic rules. You also have to be careful with the large number of cyclists who cover the roads and don’t respect the rules either.

Despite the chaotic traffic, I must admit that I was impressed by the city´s planning. The main streets have wide bike lanes, an essential detail that I have only seen in very few cities, for example.

Even though most people from Beijing have a country like lifestyle, the strong contamination and the imminent presence of skyscrapers, modern buildings and numerous construction sites, quickly remind you that you are visiting a large city.

Although you are aware that you are in a city, you are not always sure of where you are. All the street corners look alike, and the signs are only written in Chinese. Under these conditions, Having a map is useless!

If you dare, you can ask someone to give you a hand using the basic Chinese that you learned to survive in this foreign land. However, miscommunications are probable, since the other person probably won’t understand you if you mispronounce a word, or you might not understand what the person responds.

Therefore, the best way to get around is by taxi or metro, so you can go directly to the desired destination. If you prefer to walk, you can also choose to get lost in a city where everything is new and different. Whichever way you choose, you’ll hardly have a bad time. However, before you leave the hotel, I would recommend you to ask someone to use Chinese characters to write down the name of the places you want to visit and the hotel address, so you can show the taxi driver where you want to go. This will prevent you from getting lost with no return home.

Beijing is a city with plenty to offer: from its varied cooking, to its temples and its people. On top of that it is extremely safe for tourists, especially around this time, when the Chinese government is getting everything ready for the 2008 Olympics and they want to give “long noses” (that is, western tourists) a good impression.

After traveling around the city for a week, Beijing, China, continues to be a mystery sprinkled with unique flavors, smiling faces and intense colors.

How to Become Famous: Travel to China

If you have ever dreamt of being famous, and you don’t believe in “reality shows where people have become famous in a matter of days, I have an alternative for you: go to China.

This idea might sound a little bizarre, but China is a country where everything is possible; a country where you will be eternally surprised.

When I was in Beijing, people would chase me with camera phones as I walked down the street. In the parks, people would approach me saying: “Picture, picture!” Cordially, I would nod my head agreeing to take a picture of them. However, instead of posing so I could take a picture of the group, they would hug me so they could take a picture with me…

I was unable to find out why Chinese people were so eager to take pictures of me. I am not sure if they mistook me for a celebrity, or they were simply curious by the fact I was different. I simply limited myself to smile for their flashes as I enjoyed the spontaneous minutes of glory.

After all, I don’t have the opportunity to be “famous” very often.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mexico: Euphoria of Flavors

The chemist Wilbur Scoville from Park David Pharmaceutical Company, has run several investigations that demonstrate chilies contain capsaicin, a chemical component that stimulates the secretion of endorphins, which generates a sentiment of euphoria in the person who eats it.

As we all know, chilies (with its capsaicin component) are central in Mexican food, which can help to explain the success of Mexican food around the world.

Saturday night, María Luisa, one of my classmates from my masters program invited us to experiment this distinct flavor of authentic Mexican food at her home in the center of Iturrama, in Pamplona, Spain.

Everything was there. She had prepared tacos, quesadillas, green salsa, chips, meat with peppers… even tequila!.

The night started rather slow, but as we began to eat, the group started to cheer up and we ended up singing and dancing in the center of the living room.

I am not sure if it was the chemical effect of the chilies, a tequila effect, or the sensation of eating great food in good company. But there is not doubt that it had been a while since I had such a great time.

The Gods in Mexican Food

The art of cooking is fascinating because it was able to transform a routinary and vital activity like eating, into an essential component of every culture and every society.

In each country, there are different eating rituals, and diverse ways of preparing food. Even though many times we use the same ingredients, the experience and the taste of the food is not the same.

Dating back to the Aztec Empire, Mexicans gave special importance to their food. They even venerated Chicomecoatl, the corn Goddess, to ensure that they would never do without this ingredient, since it was their main source of vitamins.

Originally, Aztecs used native ingredients to prepare their foods like cacao, peanuts, vanilla, a variety of grains, chili, beans, avocado, coconut, potato, different flowers, shrimp, turtle, crab, and other types of fish.

Around 1519, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, revolutionized Mexican Cuisine, by introducing pork, lamb, citric fruits, garlic, cheese, milk and vinegar from Europe.

Since that moment on, Mexicans have incorporated these new elements to their traditional dishes, acquiring greater variety of dishes, maintaining the essence of the Aztec influence and conserving the characteristic flavor of Mexican food.

Mexican Culinary Tricks

  • Culinary Trap: Aztecs used to mix chilies with cacao based drinks to taint their mouths red to terrorize and frighten their enemies.

  • Culinary Salvation: Aztecs also tied chilies to the front of their canoes believing it served to project them from evil spirits that hid in the dark waters.