Thursday, September 24, 2009

Killing time in Madrid

I've been to Madrid a few times before, but only on short escapes from airports and train stations. Last week-end I finally got the chance to explore it more thoroughly. Here's a taste of what I saw.

I did enjoy my visit, and there *are* nice things to see there. Still, the feeling that walking the city left me with was mainly one of some kind of sadness. The unemployment rate of Spain in general is hovering near the 20 per cent mark, and it's supposedly even higher in Madrid. Even the most schizophrenic of persons can not walk through that city now and think that someone is following him. There's no one around! I may be exaggerating a little bit, but never before have I walked through the centre of a city of millions and seen so few people and so many closed shops. People have no money to spend, so they don't go shopping. Hence the outlets shut down, and even more people become unemployed.

It's a dangerous spiral. Spain has experienced higher unemployment rates before, but they have never seen it climb as fast as it has done these last few months.

Empty city streets are no fun. It's a good thing that there's a great park nearby, where you can walk around and suck in the nice atmosphere. Retiro Park, east of the city centre, is worth an hour or two of lazy walking. Pick a sunny morning after a night full of rain, and you will most likely come upon scenes like the one in the photo above.

If the city centre isn't depressing enough for you, get on the bus to nearby Chinchon. This village south-east of Madrid is traditional and a half. During the summer months the town square is used for bullfighting on Sundays. A few hundred locals, dozens of Madrileños and a few bewildered tourists sit down on the benches surround the ring in the square late in the afternoon. A decidedly amateurish marching band starts playing exactly at six in the evening, and soon thereafter you'll see tormented bulls chasing moustachiod men wearing tight and kitchy clothes. It's like a mix of Borat and Bruno, but it's no joke at all.

Every flower in the village have been stowed away, so that the feminine men will not inspire Ferdinand the Bull to become a pacifist towards the end of his life. One bull lasts about 15-20 minutes. The first five minutes it runs around with such enthusiasm that you almost suspect the animal is enjoying itself. Then two non-smiling men attach banderillas, long spears, into the sides of the bull, and the fun is definitely over. A heavy bleeding begins, and the bull's tongue appears from it's mouth. It's easy to see how the life of the bull escapes from the body.

Eventually a long sword finds its way into the back of the bull, aiming for the heart and the lungs. Soon the "fight" is over. The bull typically remains standing for a couple of minutes, coughing blood and seeming to understand nothing of what goes on. To quicken the arrival of death, the animal is provoked to move it's body this way and that, so that the sword in its body damages the internal organs more and more. The bull falls to its knees. Maybe it gets up again, but soon it falls over on it's side, and the game is over.

I wouldn't have seen this scene in a place where it's all for the tourists. But in a village where people do this because that's what they do and that's what they've always done, I don't think it is so bad. Or, well, it *is* bad, but it's not bad because of me. I think I have a point. Many a bull may disagree with me.

If the Mickey Mouse hat of the toreador does not give you enough of the Disney feeling, you can go to Segovia. The facade of the castle there supposedly inspired Walt Disney to build the central attration of his Magic Kingdom. I, however, prefer the interior of the place. A dozen armors in more or less humorous or awe-inspiring designs. Ceilings with incredibly detailed patterns. Gold, shiny stones and old kings and queens on display up above. And a view towards farmland that must have been just lying around like it does now for centuries, and an enormous aqueduct that has been carrying water into the city for even longer. The Romans knew their stuff. Until they forgot about it, that is.

That'll have to do as my Madrid memories for now. Maybe there will be more later. There certainly are more photos to choose from. But I'm serious about finishing my Turkey gallery before Christmas, so I shall return to them now.

You'll see me again here soon. I promise.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bork Bork Turk

After a few days in Turkey, I'm starting to get the language. I don't speak it, of course, but I'm an eager listener to it. It sounds possible to learn. The reason for this relative simplicity is mainly Kemal Ataturk, "the father of modern Turkey".

After World War I and various warish times in its aftermath, he pretty much defined the rules for Turkey has played by to this very day. One thing he did was to order a team of linguists to design a written Turkish language based on the Latin alphabet, and to make it a language easy to learn and to use. They did as told, and created a language so simple, that when young Turks now listen to recordings of old Ataturk's speeches, they can hardly understand any of it. Oh, the irony!

Still, the language is hard enough to learn that it has stopped me from uttering much of it this far. Give me a few more days, and I'll try for real. At least I'm not American. You know how they tend to insert "uhm..." every now and then when they speak and need time to think before they continue? Well, it turns out that this is not a good thing to do in Turkey. "Uhm" is the most vulgar way thinkable in which to say "female genitalia", or something to that order! So in Turkey, Americans are not only known for their stupidity and ignorance of other cultures, they're also known to suffer severely from Tourette's syndrome. Tough luck.

I don't swear like an American, of course. But I have to admit that the other day I was unable to resist from swearing by the beard of The Prophet. The occasion was that I was visiting the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and there they actually have Muhammad's beard on display! Now, that is one sorry beard, I tell you. If I were to choose between making it an offense to draw cartoons of Muhammad or to put the rotting remains of his bodily production on display, I would certainly have chosen the latter. That beard will never see good days again.

In addition to the beard of The Prophet, they also have the tooth of The Prophet. I didn't see anyone swear by it. They have a cast of his footprint as well, making the Topkapi experience a little bit like going to a dinosaur museum. To lure in some Christians too, they also have on display the arm of John the Apostle, and parts of his surprisingly richly decorated cranium. Imagine, some people think that I am weird because I collect travel sickness bags. Then what can you say about the collecting habits of the Turks?!

I tried to blend in with a group of South Koreans in the palace to enjoy the work of their hard-working English-speaking guide. I don't know why they had one, as it was evident that they understood only one word of what he said; "Quran". And they didn't even understand that, as they seemed to think that what he said was "Korean". "Korea number one!" they replied, smiling. I quickly gave up on making any sense of the despairing guide.

Anyway, the fun in Istanbul couldn't last forever. So I moved on to Ankara, which isn't exactly designed for travelers. Quite the opposite, I would venture to say. The same goes for the small place where the bus out of Istanbul made a meal stop. Behind a petrol station I found a building with two doors. Signs on them read "BAY" and "BAYAN", which means "MEN" and "WOMEN". Hooray, I said to myself, finally I would be allowed to take a piss. As it happens, behind the doors there weren't toilets, but a mini mosque where needy Muslims can get some praying done! I should have taken the hint when I was ordered to take my shoes off before I could enter. A petrol station restroom is rarely a good place to walk around barefoot, in my experience.

Still, I made it to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. As one might expect, it's a fairly busy town. I found a cheap and decent place to stay, right next to Hit It Hotel, which I though was a bit funny until I realized it was Hitit Hotel, named for an ancient tribe from the region. The links between Ankara and Angora wool were evident. Under my bed some impressively long-haired dust monsters seemed to have a ball.

After the room inspection I walked up to the Old Town on a hill above the Ulus district. And when I say Old Town, I mean OLD Town. People have been living there for 5000 years, and if my street map of the place had been a thousand years old, I could still have used it to find my way around.

Unfortunately, I had no street map, old or new, so I kept getting lost there. That was fine, as there were lots of interesting things to see everywhere. I found a tall wall that clearly had been built out of whatever was at hand when they built it. There were Roman inscriptions, Greek letters, classical columns, the head of a statue and modern graffiti, all within a few metres of each other. An interesting mix, a proof that many different cultures have ruled and roamed this area.

The other thing to do in Ankara, apart from inhaling exhaust and pollution, is to visit Amit Kabir, the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk. I went, together with hundreds of Turks that appeared much more serious about it than I was.

First we were given a lecture about how Ataturk single-handedly won World War I for Turkey. As a reward, he was allowed to hand off enormous tracts of land to other countries. This was a good thing, as the people in those lands for centuries had only been causing trouble for Turkey. Then we were allowed to see his car, his boat, his walking stick that has a gun built into it and his favourite dog (named Fox, I assume that back in Kemal's days it hand't been stuffed yet). Finally they let us enter the gift shop! Everything there was so cheap that I suspect that it is heavily subsidized by the government of Turkey. I now own an Ataturk prism!

Oh, and finally there's the bit where you're allowed into a huge stone building with golden letters on it, to see a big slab of stone which may or may not contain a dead ruler. It's impossible to tell for sure. The Turks seemed satisfied that there is one inside.

Next up: Göreme and Cappadocia!