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Monthly Archives: November 2012

After a year of trying, I finally got a Workaway to work out.  I’m on a farm again, this time in northern Ecuador between the tourist towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi.

I don’t really know what’s going on in this statue in Cotacachi. Is there a dice game that involves whips?

The farm is much bigger than my last one and can handle 15,000 chickens at a time.  The garden extends over various plots and contains many different vegetables taking advantage of the mild weather all year.  There are various other animals as part of their permaculture lifestyle.

Pig tractors help with the hard work by tearing up roots and eating them.

And piglets, well, those are just cute.

There’s also cows but no milking for me this time. This one, Sebastian, is friendly and came up to me to lick me all over. He also once ate a bucket of alcohol infused pineapple and got drunk. I guess teenage cows binge drink too.

Mostly I help with the gardening but I was lured in by promises of butchering.  The mild Ecuadorian climate reminds me of Los Angeles and the ability to grow things all year.  I didn’t even realize that was a thing until I moved to San Francisco.  I feel like I’m getting a nice crash course in community gardening.  As for butchering, sadly, I showed up right after the last batch of chickens and the pigs are still too young to slaughter.  There are some hams being smoked and rumors of sausages to be made.

I already miss my old oil can grill but now I want a giant oil can smoker.

Also around the farm are various pets.  I am enjoying being around a settled environment and playing with the animals.

Leaving your electronics out as sleeping cat bait works fantastically.

There are so many gigantic, friendly dogs. Feeding them takes a considerable amount of effort.

As with most generous Workaway volunteer set ups, you work about 25 hours a week.  Here that means I get my weekends off to explore.  I set out for Otavalo early Saturday to witness the many markets that occur.  The first stop was the animal market where people go to buy their critters.

Finally! I’ve found llamas in Ecuador. Como se llama?

This is the big leagues with lots of big cows.

Known here as cuy, they’re a delicacy eaten grilled on a stick for special occasions. They’re also pretty darned cute.

I went to a few vegetable/fruit markets and picked up a few things.  I passed on the Otavalan goods as I really didn’t need any leather or llama wear.  After my market adventures I visited a condor park.  My host mentioned it was 20 minutes from town but not that he meant 20 minutes by the car I don’t have and the non existent bus.  No, instead I went on a bizarre adventure traversing through farms.  Every time I asked a townsfolk where to go, the would tell me my original direction was dangerous and point me 90 degrees the other way.

At least the view from the condor park was beautiful. The condors themselves always look scraggly to me.

Sunday I attempted to climb a 4800 meter (15000 foot) mountain, taller than anything in the continental US.  Apparently my inclination for sea and vision sickness extends itself to altitude sickness as well.  I still got to enjoy some great views as I made it only halfway up the mountain and the clouds soon rolled in to cover everything.  The other snafu is on the way up a dog nipped me in the calf.  Luckily he just got my pant leg covered in drool teeth marks but didn’t break through.

The last marker I saw although the rest of my group let me know I almost reached 4000 meters. The highest I have ever hiked.

On the way down, a “shortcut” led us past some adorable critters.

Gardening was usually my morning task and the rest was cooking and baking for those here.  My adventures in high altitude kitchen wizardry and the school of learning the hard way will be a whole other post.

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I only manage to Couch Surf when I have flights somewhere as that’s the only time I know I’ll arrive somewhere beforehand to request people.  So this may be my last Couch Surfing for a while after a pleasant bout of it in Europe, but what a wonderful experience if I must end on one!  While my host understood English, we decided to converse in only Spanish.  It’s the first time I’ve ever spoken only in Spanish for days on end and was quite the experience.  That I could talk about more complicated topics in Spanish than I can muster in Mandarin, of which I am more conversationally fluent, was both exhilarating and sad.

“I need a young lady,” What a macho society! Actually my host told me that the culture is like that and luckily he is not like that at all. I kid though, this sign is for a new store clerk.

My host Carlos is a trained chef and enthusiastic eater, eager to show me the hard to find traditional foods that are fast disappearing under a dropping curtain of cheap fried meat and potato joints.  The old stuff is all the offal, the cheap bits of animal left for the poor and made into loving street food.  Unlike America where offal is often the expensive folly of gourmet restaurants, it’s still found best next to a grandma here.

As soon as I landed I put down my stuff and I was whisked away to a bunch of street carts hanging out in a park.  Sadly, my camera deleted the picture of all the steaming stalls.  There were things as simple as chicken soup or fried fish to the cart I ate at with multiple giant steaming pots of mixed pig parts and sausages.  I started my Quito offal adventure with a morcilla stew on top of a giant potato crouched on a plastic stool on wet grass.  An auspicious start for a street food adventure.  Unfortunately after realizing Ecuador peasant food meant bricks, I only managed to eat a turron for dessert.  This is a confection of Spanish Arabic origin and consists of honey, sugar and egg whites, sometimes with nuts.  It tasted like a mix between a crispy meringue and marshmallow.

The next day we started with a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast.  While it’s not people shaped as I’ve arrived after Dia de Difuntos this year it is a delightfully flaky number somewhere in-between a squishy white roll and more towards a croissant.  This is cut in half and stuffed full of queso fresco.  This is accompanied by extra sweet mandarins and finger bananas, a thin peeled and particularly sweet variety.

Quito is 9000 feet up so I had to pass on the coffee with milk as I was dehydrated from altitude sickness. Instead I enjoyed some fresh squeezed orange juice.

After this delightful meal we headed into town to do some sightseeing.  There are various parks scattered across town to complement the lush green hills and volcanoes surrounding the city.

Churches, churches everywhere! How will I differentiate my Europe and South America pictures?!

Well I guess Europe doesn’t have broken stained glass windows.

Oh and the two clock towers with oddly modern clocks.

After this church Carlos asked if I’d like to see a few more churches.  As I live with constant church fatigue, I passed on the golden opportunity to keep paying a few bucks to enter a church for half an hour.  Instead we wandered around the UNESCO protected old town admiring the colonial style buildings.

The first thing I did when unleashed on the streets was spy a stall with an indigenous woman frying what looked like pupusas. Turns out they are tortillas de maize (corn) stuffed with queso fresco and served dry in a paper bag.

Finally getting me back on track, I was led to the local market where produce, meats, fish and food stalls collided.

They’re going fried piggyback. Har har har.

After buying a small bag of melt in your mouth chicharrones we left skipping the food stalls with wares that looked like they had been sitting too long.  I had inquired about avocados since I had seen them at the market so Carlos decided we should have those and mote if he could find it, but more on that later when we do find it.  We ended up having trouble finding anything to eat as apparently lunch places are only open from 1 – 2:30 and it was 3 by this time.

Guatita in the Plaza de la Independencia. Guatitas means tripe and this is a stew where the tripe is cleaned in a lemon lime brine, cooked until tender, cooled, cut, and turned into a delicious hangover cure. It works for altitude sickness too!  The egg is there just in case it isn’t ridiculously hearty already.

It started pouring at this point so we ducked into a cafe that had been there for a hundred years to enjoy some sorbet.  I enjoyed a taxo (banana passionfruit) one that was slightly sandy and tan which is strange considering the fruit is yellow green and looks like a passionfruit inside.  After all this food we were quite full and just had more fruit for dinner.

The next day we were going hiking to some waterfalls.  A possibly dangerous affair as I had a mix of waking up at 6 am due to jetlag and being on Madrid time and lingering effects of altitude sickness.  Luckily it turned out we were joining a scout group and it wasn’t a hard hike at all.

The view of the surrounding hills and volcanoes was stunning.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch near the grand waterfall of a mishmash of local classics.  There was arroz con pollo, choclo nuts (think corn nuts but lighter and way better tasting), potatoes, some sort of potato salad looking thing, tuna on crackers, meat, cheese, and broad beans.

While there were many waterfalls the grand one advertised was a tad short on water at the moment. This one was more lovely.

On the way back the bus broke out into leading the kids singing.  I guess scouts are the same everywhere.  Everyone else headed home as Carlos and I stopped where we needed to change buses to enjoy some local food.

Yaguarlocro is a creamy meat and potato stew full of offal bits that come with a menudo like bunch of ingredients on the side to mix in. Those little bowls contain a perfectly ripe avocado, slide of red tomato, shreds of red onion, and ground up fried pork blood.

Yaguarlocro can be hard to find as it is often only served a day or two a week at a restaurant.  The perfectly ripe avocado did a lot to satisfy my Californian Haas avocado longings.  It was a heavy bowl happily washed down with a mora (Andean blackberry/raspberry) juice.  I wanted guayabana (soursop) but sadly they were out. Carlos jumped on the chance that they had mote here as well so we ordered some sides that may have killed us.  Mote is dried choclo (giant corn) rehydrated five times until it bursts.  It is reminiscent of hominy to me.

A tortilla made of potatoes and a plate of chicharrones, mote, and lightly fried corn nuts. If only American corn nuts tasted like this, lightly crunchy with onion and garlic and not overly seasoned tooth breaking.

After a huge meal like that we walked out and I jumped at the opportunity to walk the market we noted in the morning.  The full bus had emptied out at this stop almost 12 hours earlier and I was curious what that meant it contained.  The market felt endless as it stretched on for three blocks, the side streets, and two large market areas on the sides of the street.

We brought home dollar bags of uvillas (ground cherries, the paper husked things) and ojitos (small sour red plums).

After a heavy meal all we could manage was fruit before everyone on the trip was tuckered out from starting so early on a Sunday.  The next day was a quiet one for me as I took an opportunity to not do anything for the first time in weeks and figure out what to do next.  I had wandered out to look for breakfast when Carlos’ Mom showed up at the street to pull me away from the menudo vendor and make me breakfast.  My Spanish skills aren’t great to begin with but I hadn’t understood her real well when I groggily ran into her moments before I left.  She’s an adorable woman almost two heads shorter than me but with twice the energy.

As if breakfast wasn’t enough, Carlos’ Mom showed up with a steaming plate of lengua and potato stew and a bowl of rice. Carlos’ Dad showed up a little later with a cup of fresh juice.

Most adorable was Carlos’s Mom fretting that I didn’t like her lengua.  While I like all lengua, mostly experienced in tacos in the past, I assured her I greatly enjoyed her version.  The day continued to be quiet as I read and ran mundane errands of gear replacement.  Dinner consisted of a pintxo of a grilled skewer of meat, sausage, hot dog, potato and banana over a plate of beans and rice.  Ah, hints of the cheap carb on carb on carb action from my Ecuadorian adventures last year.  I had actually spied this stall when I entered the area thinking “Well, if I can’t find my host I’m camping out where that bbq smoke is wafting from!”

My last full day, once i tore myself from being taken care of by the nicest family ever, was spent at the Capilla del Hombre.  This is a museum dedicated to the cruelties of humanity in South America and hope for a grander future.  It featured a lot of work by Guayasamin, of who I was trying to visit at his foundation which was busy moving buildings.  The evening furthered that thought as we visited an art gallery cafe exhibiting the continuing struggle of South Americans with the protest art of today.

The sprawl reminds me of Los Angeles, however Quito is a long narrow city.

I thought Spain was offal central, but Quito has the real heart of the matter, no pun intended as I did not ingest any heart.  My last day involved a failed adventure to find whole goat head’s soup but ended in delicious chicken soup and chicharrones on beans and mote instead.  We were at the Santa Maria market instead of the Santa Claramarket , only in Latin American countries.

I wish all hot sauce was like this aji and came in huge buckets to be served by wooden oars, I mean spoons. A benefit of visiting Quito markets.

Just a reason to return or keep searching in Ecuador.  Quito is not the most stunning city, particularly after the majestic churches of Andalucia I had just left, but it is exactly what I needed, a low stress town full of pleasant charm and hidden treasures.  I hope to finally leave the rain that has followed me for weeks though.

Really I just like reasons for holidays and celebrations, as evident by my three new years this year.  However I do think it is momentous to celebrate the fact that I have made it around the globe.  Granted 380 days is a lot longer than 80, I’m also taking my sweet time a lot more than that adventure and its lack of stopping anywhere.   Let’s ignore the fact that I already celebrated my 365 days traveling.  So what does an avid eater do to celebrate?

The only way I know how to celebrate: by accidentally taking porn-like photos of tender meat in low lighting.

My last meal in Madrid and in Europe was at Botin, the “world’s oldest restaurant” based on Guinness records and contested by a bunch of other ancient places.  The more important part is they have crackly skinned moist pork and it is in an ancient wooden cellar that managed to escape the bombings of so many wars.  The restaurant is pretty touristy and I got told to return three hours later when I showed up fifteen minutes after they opened, but that’s what you get for not being able to make a reservation online for less than three people.  I had to get some chocolate and churros to bide my time, the horrors of my day.  When I showed up later I got crammed in a corner where the walls crumbled on me occasionally and I was mildly squished next to a giant humidifier disguised as a ye olde wood door.  Yet the tender pork in crisp skin swimming in a pool of its own juices with a couple of potatoes was enough to make it awesome still.  I just wish I had the money and a stomach not full of churros and chocolate to have ordered the roasted baby lamb as well.  Lamb is already tender as a young sheep, is baby lamb extra tender?

This is also a good time to reflect on all the things I have learned over the past year.  I’m oft asked why I went on this trip and one of the answers I give is, “This is cheaper than graduate school and the learning is a lot more fun and practical.”

The big one: Was a Round The World Trip ticket worth it?

Yes and no.  It was a good deal and I had a lot of flexibility in my flights, free changes to date/time and only $125 for changes for location changes.  I even managed to change my flight for free when I missed my flight due to misunderstanding military time was being used.  Who flies at 1 AM?!  That’s the end of the good news.  The other half is that it took an average of 40 minutes of hold time and a week worth of calling daily to make changes.  For LAN I found that LAN America is handicapped and tells you to call back daily just to tell you they screwed up, and it’ll take probably another three days. Call back then, we have no power to change anything without our supervisor!  Calling LAN Chile was much more effective as their call center people could make changes immediately if it was for date/time.  I did get blacked out of the entire summer for going to Europe which was fortunate for my wallet but annoying for flexibility’s sake.  From other travelers’ reports I have compiled that the Latin American airlines (LAN and TAM) seem to be the worst, I’ve never had a good run in with AA even prior to current bankruptcy service issues, and the developed European nations (FinnAir and Lufthansa) had the most friendly and helpful service.  Would I do it again?  I probably wouldn’t have made it around the world in one year without it, but I’m not sure if being in India right now inhaling curries would’ve been a bad thing.

What do you need to carry?

I’m not really sure still, but I can tell you to plan for your weather.  I can also tell you what I really haven’t used.  I still haven’t been in good camping climate so the sleeping bag has only been optionally used.  My clothes have been wrecked after being worn for a year and I’ve had to buy a lot of new stuff.  Don’t buy it in Asia unless you are of their tiny proportions.

My laptop has been a blessing and a curse.  I’ve typed out lengthy e-mails on a phone this trip and it’s a pain in the ass.  You could use the free computers at hostels but I will warn you that I get blocked a lot from website that report the entire router’s IP has been blocked to spambots at multiple hostels.  So it’s been convenient to have a computer of my own and to view travel info on a full size screen.  The curse is that it’s broken three times, changing my travel plans three times, so that I had to hustle to a developed city with an authorized Apple repair center and then sit there waiting in a more expensive city.  And these fine authorized folk in Singapore of all places only managed to break my laptop the first fix so that it caused the second problem.  Oy.  It’s also heavy and the biggest item I constantly worry about getting stolen or losing.  I do carry a PacSafe slash proof bag which has been awesome when I can’t find a locker.

The ISYT (youth travel) card I bought hasn’t been used once.  Being under 26 would’ve been more useful for youth discounts and my almost decade old university ID worked just fine most places.

Is Couch Surfing a good idea? / How do I find a good place to stay (Couches and hostels/guesthouses)

Yes, this is a definite yes for Couch Surfing.  Even if you are feeling timid about staying in a stranger’s house it’s one of the best and most reliable ways I’ve had to find locals in the big cities I’m going to even if just for a coffee, drink or meal.  And big cities are the hardest places for me to connect with locals so it’s a boon.  As for finding good places to sleep/eat/drink, it’s really pretty similar on any website.  You start getting used to filtering by places with lots of reviews and what is really important in reviews.  At some point you realize all the reviews about “the best hostel breakfast ever!” and “the best meal I’ve had in my 3 weeks in Spain!” on every location you look at cannot be real.   As with anything new you find, your experience may rock the socks off a place with no reviews or even a great reviewed place will be terrible.  Smart filtering will still up your chances.  So far the only bad hostels I’ve had were because they were party hostels, not because of any terrible dirtiness or anything.  I personally filter for clean, just out of tourist area but walkable, not a party place, and family run.  As for couch surfing, I’ve met a few people I didn’t click with, amazing people that keep in touch more often than friends from back home, and one cult who made intelligent conversation and great Thai food.

This does lead me into how do I find good eating places.  Sadly backpacker joints are generally overpriced for the area and mediocre to terrible.  Apparently backpacking means you have bad taste.  My general go to websites have been Chowhound and Simon Seeks however both are more skewed towards people with money and less towards your budget traveler.  Lonely Planet and other guides tend to value cleanliness and comfortable (read: tastes altered to your pansy tourist taste buds) over actual good taste.  Also there is some strange curse of success where once in a guidebook many places know they can stop caring because a constant stream of one time visitors will come in.  Otherwise I find local food blogs the best spots to find pertinent budget information for eating tasty local foods.

So there’s my thoughts on traveling and eating my way around the world for one year.  I’m not stopping just yet as I’ve landed on my feet in Ecuador so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more on the way.  Every continent operates a little differently and South America should be a fun challenge.

I really like trying new foods.  A lack of fear for things like offal and funny things means I often spend my time sniffing out the weirder parts of a culture’s cuisine.  In Spain though, I had a much more normal obsession.  I ate as many chocolate with churros as I could find.  Much like how I eat gelato in Italy, except I fortunately never made it to twice a day for churros.  So to make myself feel more productive and less like I ate a billion donuts, here’s a breakdown of churros.

First, let’s start with Madrid.  San Gines is the obvious big attraction here, open til way into the night for those late night post drinking churros.  When I went during the day the line was just too much to deal with and I left it for another time.  Instead my first stop was Chocolat, off a random side street close to the museum area.  It’s a small diner manned by a few brothers with some slightly out of place chairs covered in fabric like a wedding.  Lest the reserved signs lead you astray, they were totally friendly and I was thrilled when they asked if I would wait five minutes when I ordered.  Of course I’ll wait so I can have the freshest fritter possible!

Not the prettiest set up, but a damned tasty one. Here I got a mix of churros and porras, thin star shaped donuts like most people are used to and fatter almost Chinese you tiao like ones. I prefer the thinner ones.

Not one to miss out on churros I went back to San Gines and waited in line.  Then while I was eating there were periods of no line mixed with huge ones.  The interior was beautiful in a classic way befitting such an old institution.

The chocolate was a bit chalky on its own and the waiters efficiently brusque. The churros were barely warm as they just fry them constantly like a factory. I prefer warm service and hot churros thanks.

That’s a lot of chocolate. I want a jug of chocolate.

In Seville I stopped in Cafeteria Dona Carmen and rubbed elbows with lots of senior citizens enjoying their afternoon porras. I prefer churros but this was the donut of the day. Not the best of either item but the atmosphere was charming with the local old folk.

In Malaga I managed to go to Casa Arandas from the nearby market just in time before closing at noon. This was the only place I went where they let you order churros by the stick and had a takeout counter for them. Both chocolate and churros were good here.

In Granada I went to Churreria Alhambra in a touristy plaza. I found the donuts to be greasy and chocolate ok but again chalky. At least they were fried fresh though.

I got around to Cafe Futbol also in Granada. The donuts were almost densely solid here. I found both chocolate and churros between ok and good.

In Cordoba I stumbled on this stand outside the Alcazar while starving for breakfast in-between running to catch the free entrances. The dough tasted funnel cake like and dense. While not particularly churro like to me it was one of my favorite donuts fresh off the fryer and greasing up the paper.

Back in Madrid before my flight I stopped at Chocolateria Valor where they make chocolates as well. Accordingly, the chocolate was good but the donuts perhaps the worst and greasiest I’ve had in Spain.

My hostel serves chocolate and churros in the morning so it is fitting that the last thing I will eat in Spain is my most obsessed dish.  Far superior to American (Mexican) churros of cinnamon and sugar, I will longingly miss the Spanish version as I travel onward.

After starting my eating adventures in Madrid, a center of all the regions, I didn’t know what to expect in Andalucia.  Fresh seafood due to proximity?  Tapas?  Tortillas?  It was a delicious place to learn as I went.

My first stop was Seville where they claim to have invented the tapa.  I went to the oldest taperia in town, El Rinconcillo, where they claim this distinction.  It’s still jam packed and delicious today, centuries later.

Some classics of Seville: spinach with chickpeas, braised pork cheeks, and bacalao (cod) fritter. The first two were amazing and the latter was a meh fish without chips.

In Seville, it’s still common to see them write your tab down on the bar or wall. As you can see, mine is nothing compared to the lingering large groups eating, drinking, and mingling.

While not on the ocean, Seville had the lovely Feria market so I stopped at La Cantina on the side of it. The tiny fried fish and prawns are common tapas all over town but extra fresh here where you point at what you want in the glass case.

Post flamenco show I found myself at Bodeguita Romero for some more Seville treats.

Another common dish is tortilla camarones, a Spanish egg/potato dish with lots of tiny shrimp. Wonderfully crispy but pretty salty.

This place is known for their pringa sandwich. Pringa is popular in the region and consists of pork, sausages, and blood sausage all slow cooked together.

I love albondigas (meatballs) of all forms and these choco (cuttlefish) ones hit the spot. While I usually prefer pork ones, these might’ve been the best meatballs I’ve had in Spain.

After Seville was Ronda which is a bit of a tourist day trip pit stop for most people so the food was aimed towards that.  Mostly sadly mediocre and overpriced, it took me some effort to find some affordable palatable fare.  My first meal was Bar Maestro, a charming local looking tapas bar run by a gruff old couple.

Since I did not have time for Valencia I didn’t really eat much paella on this trip. However I heard it was good at this place and got the world’s smallest paella. It’s pretty cute and delicious.

How does one make kidneys delicious? By sandwiching fat between it and making sure it’s real tender.

My other meal was targeted at trying the specialty of the city, oxtail.  Sadly my visit to another local friendly looking place was fine, but not great.  I probably would give it a pass if I was there again.  Working against the restaurant was the fact that I was so full of meaty products that I was slightly sick of heavy food, which is what traditional food of the region is.

The restaurant’s specialty was the “Pork Special” which was a hedgehog looking meatball with toothpicks all over it.

In a town of bullfights I was sad to find a lackluster oxtail.

I’d been so obsessed with chocolate with churros that I didn’t make much time for anything else.  Breakfast time in Ronda seemed like a perfect time to branch out.

A chocolate napolitina which is quite like a croissant topped by two chocolate shortbread like cookies. Hello diabetes breakfast.

The next stop was Malaga which was actually on the sea.  While the seafood at the market was impeccably fresh and sold by amusing shouting men, the prices were as high as America so I did not stock up.  Instead I partook in the city tradition of eating sardines grilled on a skewer over driftwood on the beach.

At some point while you watch the kids on the tire zipline, the waves crash, and people wander by, you realize this is the perfect place to eat sardines.

Seriously, these chiringuitos grilled ’em up inside of old boats.

Everything else at the shack was awful but the sardines, while not cheap, were tasty. I didn’t even know Spain contained wine this bad.

My first meal was a disappointment as the old town of Malaga is pretty touristy and stopping in a random ceveceria was apparently not a good idea.  Most of these places valued cheesy decor and cleanliness over affordability and taste.

Not actually from Andalucia is fabada asturiana, a rich bean stew with sausage chunks. My continuing aversion to heavy foods will never be fixed here.

My hostel in Malaga was more like a bed and breakfast and served a wonderful spread of homemade desserts every morning.  It also had the benefit of being around the corner of what was supposed to be the best tapas bar in town, El Tapeo de Cervantes, which serves a mix of new fusion and traditional classics.  Everyone in town wanted to do fusion but it looked more like bad 90’s California fusion than anything really interesting.  The restaurant is also known for game meat but I found the boar overly sweet and not something I would get again.

They really love salt cod out here and they stuffed it in some peppers here. Pleasant but not thrilling.

One of the specialties of the bar is sea bream with goat cheese and carrot puree. This was the best thing I had here.

Out on the street you could find guys with tables covered in paper and almonds.  While they have quite the markup, the market does carry delicious Malaga almonds as well.

These are a steal compared to America. I should’ve gotten more tasty fried Malaga almonds.

My next stop was Granada where I Couch Surfed with an Indian man who helped my unmet traveler’s spice cravings.  Amusingly, he made me the same Indian dishes I used to cook at home: chicken tikka masala, tomato cauliflower, and chickpea curry.  Granada has the benefit of tapas bars that give you a free tapa with beer but otherwise are not well known for their food.

This was one lucky cat being served leftover paella outside a church by a nun. Even the cats eat well here.

The jewel of Andalucian cuisine is Cordoba, oft overlooked by travelers who stop only in Seville and Granada.  I still found it slowly being creeped up on by mediocre tourist restaurants trying to charge more but I had better luck finding great food.  My first stop was Taverna Salinas, another ye old place that was flooded with tourists due to recommendation in guidebooks.  Luckily the food was still good.

No, that’s not milk next to my wine.

I caught up on ajo blanco, a specialty I missed in Seville.  I think I prefer salmorejo as I found this to be one noted and grainy.  The raisins hanging out in the bottom of the glass could’ve helped had they not been in a weird glass.  The oxtail was superb! I was worried I just had to give up on it, but no here it was perfect.  Melty and saucy, I inhaled every bit.

Bar Santos right outside the Mezquita is known for their world’s tallest tortilla.  I also took this chance to try morcilla, blood sausage.  Served cold, it had an unpleasant consistency.

Them’s some tall tortillas.

For second lunch I headed over to La Cazuela de La Espateria to find a few more Cordoban classics.

Found everywhere in Spain so I had no idea it was from Cordoba is salmorejo, a cold tomato soup thickened and made creamy by bread. It’s then drizzled with olive oil, jamon, and boiled eggs.

If I wasn’t feeling heavy food, this would be the nail in the coffin. Cordoban specialty flamenquin is pork rolled in jamon and then fried and served with chips and mayo. My this was heavy!

For dinner I headed over to Taverna Gorgona.  I walked by thinking it was closed before I spied an old man eating at the counter.  I’m glad I stopped in and the place quickly filled with locals after I arrived.

After all this time in Spain I finally got around to getting a plate full of Jamon Iberico. I wish I had more but at least I tried it in a region known for great jamon.

Another Cordoban thing is fried eggplant covered in molasses. It was tasty but much too big a portion for one!

While certainly not San Sebastian, Andalucia was tasty on its own.  I don’t know how a vegetarian would survive here but I certainly enjoyed the porky goodness.  I will have to return to Spain again to try all the other densely packed yet vastly different regional cuisines.

From the cold grip of Madrid I escaped southward to Andalucia, a land carved by the histories of so many groups.  I wanted to see Moorish architecture and hear the lapping of the sea.  It did not take long to find.  As soon as I landed in Seville I found myself inundated with broad leafy avenues, bright white stone buildings, and enough tourist shops selling Flamenco dresses to make one blurry with polka dots.  Seville is the modern hub of Flamenco so I attended a show at the cultural center.  I was expecting more sexy dancing and instead got mostly soulful music and some insane hard tap dancing.  Thoroughly confused, I later took a free flamenco class that my hostel/cultural association offered in Malaga to learn the basic steps.  I am still confused exactly what flamenco is supposed to be but it is fun to watch and one hard workout.

After Seville I decided I wanted to check out one of the small hillside villages.  I get the feeling that much like Vietnam, that I may have liked Andalucia a lot more if I had my own means of transport and spent most of my time in the countryside.  Ronda is a beautiful hill top castle with Moorish roots.

The surrounding farms and countryside are absolutely stunning.

It may perhaps not be a perfect example of the quiet countryside I sought as it was overrun with day trippers.  Luckily wandering just outside of town was a quiet reprieve from the high prices and terrible quality of tourist aimed goods and lodging.

Any minute now an old guy with a beard will appear telling me I need to accompany some hobbits and a ring.

After Ronda I wanted to head to next closest town Cordoba but only found an expensive high speed train.  So the next thing I know, I’m in the coastal city of Malaga.  It is not in the trifecta of stunning Andalusian culture cities but has a charm all of its own as it mixes old and new under its thick veneer of tourism.

The industrial dock cranes cast long shadows as the sun sets over the water.

On the hill next to the old part of town are a castle and fortress complex with beautiful views of the town.

It’s a bit of a steep climb but I think it is well worth the view.

The two complexes are separate and are connected by a no longer used medieval walkway.  Now you get to climb up the windy hill with a view of the bull ring instead.

The fortress still looks pretty impenetrable today, particularly when there are so many easier high rise targets around.

Malaga also had an interesting Roman theater and a lovely local market filled with delectably fresh goods.  I recommend grabbing some Malaga almonds if you visit, they’re much cheaper and delicious there than the much pricier street vendors.  On my way out I discovered there were free audio guides available in the form of an iPod you can get at the tourism office.  Another time I suppose, but why not just make it an app?

Next I headed to Granada where the grandest of all the Andalucian buildings, the Alhambra, lies.  On this hill complex are multiple palaces and endless gardens.  Continuing the effort at being high tech but falling a few years behind, the Alhambra had free bluetooth guides for download that only appeared to work on Blackberry phones.

I really enjoy the Moorish geometric patterns that mix straight lines with more sensuous curves and fun shapes than I’m used to seeing in Christian wall decoration.

These interesting patterns could be found all over the place.

I always had this mental image of blue and white horseshoe arches but I will gladly gaze at blue and white stalactite dome ceilings instead.

I find Arabic writing to be quite bubbly and stylized in a way even cursive writing never fully attains, especially in stonework.

What a view you got from the windows!

It must’ve been such a peaceful palace in such tumultuous times.

Right after my scheduled visit to the Nazares Palaces I lost my ticket, which is a tough position when they want to scan it every five minutes in the complex.  Luckily after lots of poor descriptions in Spanish they got me a lost ticket to continue my wanderings.

I really enjoyed the vast gardens, farmed flowers and vegetables, and bodies of water everywhere.

The famous jumping fountains in a courtyard.

The land right outside of the castle was beautiful as well.

Being from Los Angeles, I am constantly amazed by this seasons business. Leaves change color you say?

I wandered out to the Sacremonte neighborhood where Roma gypsies once lived in caves on the hillside and helped invent flamenco. This is a statue of their king with a fun hat.

They claim it to be a city full of graffiti but I had to do some searching to find more than some monochrome scribbles of names. This guy is quite famous and includes fortune cookie looking quotes next to beautiful women.

I didn’t feel like I spent enough time in each town nor did I spend any time at all between them.  This was a rushed trip, or a normal speed trip for most people.  It involved a lot of time on buses.

The view from buses is endless olive groves spread over the otherwise quite deserty landscape.

After the grandeur of Alhambra in Granada I was finally ready to go to Cordoba.  Somehow left off of the fast itineraries, this may have been my favorite city in the area just because it is less frequented by tourists and therefore quieter.  I am not usually a church lover as my head spins trying to see how they are different after a couple.  Yet in Cordoba I have seen the most beautiful one I feel I have ever seen, converted from a former Mosque.

The darkness only contributes to the mood of gazing upon the endless striped horseshoe arches.

Once upon a time, all the religions lived together peacefully in this region.  They even studied together.  It is interesting to see the similarities and differences in their architecture particularly as many churches in the area are converted mosques.

Domed roofs aren’t just for churches, as this one is embellished with the geometric shapes of mosques.

The courtyard of the church is covered in lovely orange trees.

I enjoyed Cordoba continuing the trend of having many free things with the Mezquital church and Alcazar both being free in the early half of the mornings.  Once in you could wander at will, just watch out for the large hordes of school children.

I ended up seeing the large scale structures of ancient splendors that I came to this region to see but I did tire of my fast travel and the hordes of tourists even in low season.  Now I am inspired to return one day upon wheels of my own so that I can see all the nooks in between and the beautiful national parks sprawling over the province that many, like me, seem to pass right over.