Friday, May 29, 2009

Serenity in Sacromonte

I trudge up the tortuously irregular streets and steps in Sacromonte, the cave neighborhood inhabited by gypsies set high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Granada. I feel the blazing Andalusian sun browning my arms as I climb past rows of small green Seville Orange Trees heavy with sweet-smelling fruit.

I’d forgotten what summer felt like living in the melancholy of a wet and lonely Barcelona winter – the freedom of bare limbs. I’m warm, even sweaty, and can feel every stone jutting from the path through the thinning soles of my boots. My right shoulder throbs from carrying the overstuffed Zara bag that I’ve nearly worn out in only two months.

I don't seen anyone until a woman with waist-length hair and a flowing dress walks up the road. Suddenly I have the urge to buy a Moroccan cuff and dangly earrings. That’s how I feel – like air blowing in a skirt and naked toes, like gently tinkling jewelry and warmth on tanned skin.

The breeze blows the intense perfume of amethyst-colored wisteria hanging over whitewashed walls, bringing on a wave of nostalgia. The familiar smell takes me back to Charleston and my daily runs past the wrought-iron gates guarding the fragrant gardens and mansions thick with 19th-century Southern history.

Here in El AlbaicĂ­n, this old Moorish quarter, blue-and-white ceramic squares name streets. Lush green plants spread over low bleached buildings. The occasional motorcycle or car zooms along the tight path, forcing me to press myself against the stone wall guarding the mountain’s edge. I hear recorded Flamenco music softly humming from the open door of an empty bar with fluorescent lights. Its vibrations blunt this quietness, this emptiness. I wish I could hear real Flamenco – spontaneous and passionate, deep from the basement of the soul.

The sense of joy and tranquility, of being completely content with the here and now of this moment, washes over me with every mild current of mountain air and aching step. I realize how far I am from the due dates and to-do lists that once constantly flowed through my mind, the endless cycle of exams and presentations. I’m free from all the anxieties that dominated my former academic life. Like the final mediation stage ending good yoga class, I want to capture this elated peace and live in it forever.

I’ve experienced this serenity before – in the San Cristobal province of the Dominican Republic, trekking through tropical forest led by a troop of barefoot children munching on the mangoes and sugar cane they always fed us; at the summit of a cactus garden in the Jujuy desert of northern Argentina, basking in the silence of the wind while gazing out at rainbow mountains; and 16,000 feet above sea level outside Cuzco, Peru, crammed on a bus against Quechuas in colorful woolen skirts with braided hair and babies on their backs as we wound up through the cloud-swirled Andes mountains.

Now I look out across Granada below in the valley to La Alhambra palace. Built on a hilltop and set against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, the 11th century Muslim masterpiece is worthy of Ali Baba or Sinbad, its Generalife fountains and gardens rivaling one of the seven Koranic heavens.

This is the bliss explorers seek. Nearly seven months in Spain and it has finally climaxed – that overdue traveler’s rush – deep in an ancient Arabic corner of southern Spain, so far away from the mountains of Appalachia or the coasts of Carolina. Should I cancel my return flight to the States? Maybe I should move here, teach English, get an apartment. I belong here, wallowing in sunshine and inhaling wisteria high on a holy mountain under a canopy of blue sky.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Incense and beer: One hell of a Holy Week

Seville is Spain at its most intense, and during Semana Santa Seville is at its most intense. The city’s deeply religious and traditional yet hedonistic nature is on full display throughout Easter Week, in an idiosyncratic celebration of world-class proportions like only the Andalusians could put on. The Sevillians make their passion for the Virgin remarkably evident during these holy days, yet their sacred celebration is more frivolous than solemn. In truth the general mood is downright riotous.

Throughout the week, the brotherhoods representing the city’s numerous cathedrals each put on a procession. The individual parades begin in the neighborhood churches and snake their way to the main cathedral (arguably the largest in Christendom) in the city center. These pasos consist of hundreds of marching hooded penitents of all ages carrying crosses, banners, or giant candles. (Shaking the KKK and witch connotations can take a bit of time for us Americans.) Some dedicated souls walk barefoot. The penitents stride to the beat of stirring dirges and stimulating drumbeats performed by a marching band. The youngest participants pass out candy to children and march accompanied by parents, lending a trick-or-treat element to the proceedings.

The highlight of the pasos are the floats, elaborately adorned with flowers, candles, jewels, and 16th-century figures from the Passion and weighing in at up to two tons. Underneath the platforms a team of parishioners slowly carts the load on their shoulders, taking frequent pauses to regain their strength.

The city basically transforms for these seven days — officials block off the streets, security swarms about, and the chaotic masses reach out to touch the platforms and snap photos. A journey of a few blocks can take hours of navigation. Sometimes the combination of an especially inspiring float or musical elegy will prompt an impassioned disciple to spontaneously break out into a waling, flamenco-style ode to the Virgin, earning a spirited closing applause. The processions begin in the afternoon and march on late into the morning hours.

Day and night crowds pack the hundreds of bars that double as restaurants lining the streets, consuming infinite tray-loads of gourmet-looking tapas and bottles of beer. The heavy fragrance of incense blows through the air in visible puffs, mixing with the smell orange blossoms and the aroma of plates piled high with tapas, mostly mariscos (assorted seafood) delicately fried to Andalusian perfection. Some families even camp out on lawn chairs with coolers. Seated on the curbs, grandmothers reveal the edges of their circulation-cutting knee-high stockings. It’s a week-long parade party and a very familial affair. Most onlookers are extended household clans, with the occasional couple or motley group of teenagers thrown in. A lone individual lost in the crowd inevitably begins to feel invisible.

On Maundy Thursday many women dress in black, some crowned with high combs holding black lace veils that fall down behind their knees. Despite the intense heat, it’s a crowd of handsome, leathery skinned men in suits and slicked-back hair with that notoriously Spanish machisto strut and heavily made-up women in panty hose teetering the cobbled streets in pointed heels.

The action climaxes on Good Friday at midnight, with the arrival of the most important paso bearing La Macarena, the bullfighting patron saint of Seville. Seville’s dedication to the Virgin is almost cult-like, with burly grown men nearly breaking into tears at her appearance. The lively proceedings continue until dawn.

Surprisingly, it's a quiet, family-oriented Easter Sunday that culminates the week's excessive exhibition of socializing, dining, and worshipping that epitomizes the Andalusian spirit.