Monday, December 31, 2007

Adventure #9: Canary Islands

The Medtronic plant closes here the week of Christmas, and employees are required to take vacation - which was fine by us. We decided it was time for some sun, and booked a trip to Gran Canaria, one of the Canary Islands.

Gran Canaria is the third largest island of the Canary Islands, an archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean 210 km from the northwest coast of Africa and belonging to Spain. The island is volcanic in origin and much closer to the equator; it was around 70 degrees each day the entire time we were there (lovely).

We stayed in Playa del Ingles ("Englishmen's beach"), located on the southern tip of the island (the Costa Canaria), where all the other Northern European tourists stay to escape the winter cold. Christmas is the island's busiest week of the year, we were told. Lots of Germans, English, Irish and Scots there. Playa del Ingles was very touristy: lots of tacky souvenir shops, malls, arcades and restaurants that all served the exact same food and drink menus - only the restaurant logo in the corner was changed. But an open-air restaurant on a cliff with unobstructed views can serve whatever it wants, and people will come just for the scenery. We did, and the pizzas and banana splits were great. Playa del Ingles has a beautiful promenade that runs along the ocean called Paseo Costa Canaria. One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip was just walking along the paseo, looking out at the ocean, catching some rays and people watching. The beaches were very pretty - lots of beach umbrellas, windsurfers, kite surfers and parasailors, as well as people walking along the beach down to the sand dunes of Masopalomas.

Masopalomas, just west of PdI, has these amazing sand dunes - the only similarity to Africa we found on the island. It is truly a Spanish island - language, food, people, architecture, etc. After spending Sunday afternoon walking through the dunes, where we found it gets really windy around lunchtime (tradewinds), Damon decided it would be cool to walk the paseo down here on Christmas Eve morning and watched the sunrise. Spectacular!

We lounged by the pool some our first few days too, but it was usually partly cloudy and a little chilly for sunbathing without full sun. We also watched the sunset at Faro de Maspalomas, the site of the island's notable landmark lighthouse, built in 1886, long before the tourism boom. Another boardwalk starts here and runs up the west coast of the island - not sure how far it goes, possibly only to the next town. The camel rides were nearby, where we sadly learned that they simply put you in a double-metal chair (with another person) that hangs over the camel's hump and a guide leads a line of camels on a rope around in a contained pin - so we didn't opt for the 28 euro per person ride! There was also a cool statue here of a person riding a huge moray eel. And lots of nice shops and restaurants too.

A favorite memory of mine - not Damon's - would be the mercados, or street markets. The San Fernando mercado was held on Wednesday. There are great markets somewhere on the island almost every day of the week, but this was the closest one to PdI, located about 3-4 km northwest of our hotel. We walked there, and I bought a couple purses and some bling-bling jeans for Norah from the vendors in colorful tents pitched in a parking lot. We also found a cool gift for Ian.

The highlights of the trip were Thursday and Friday. We realized on Wednesday we needed a car to get out and explore the rest of the island. It took a half a day to find one (almost all were rented), and we finally coughed up 60 euros for a Leon Seat (whatever that is). It was a nice car, and we set out around 9 a.m. on our day-long road trip. Highlights included:

- Los Azulejos - a very cool rock formation in the southwest interior of the island where minerals and oxidization have left these beautiful shades of green and peach on the mountainsides.

- Anden Verde - the coastal area on the west coast; beautiful drives along cliffs, the coastline, vegetable and fruit plantations, and tiny, charming towns. There were several vista points along the road where we stopped and took pictures; we could even see Tenerife, the next Canary Island west of Gran Canaria, which had a snowpeaked mountain called Teide, which is the highest point of Spain.

- Agaete - a little town on the west coast with beautiful whitewashed buildings and a botanical garden; we walked from here down to the boardwalk of Puerto de las Nieves.

Puerto de las Nieves - a sleepy little fishing village with a small port for ferries to Tenerife. Very quiet, charming - colorful buildings, small beach, surfers catching waves near the rocks. The manmade wall they've created to protect the city from surge during hurricanes was also impressive.

- Roque Nublo - means the "Rock Clouded" in Spanish; a monolith vertical rock that is 80 m tall. It is one of the most famous landmarks in the island of Gran Canaria. The elevation is 1,813 m ranking it second on the island and one of the tallest in the archipelago. It's located in the mountainous interior of the island, called the Cumbre. We arrived here after circling the entire island by car, then driving straight north of Playa del Ingles about one hour into the mountains. Stunning views, and lots of curvy, windy roads, which Damon enjoyed driving along. We hiked into Roque Nublo and watched the sunset. Maspalomas and the ocean were visible through the fog. It was about 40 degrees at Roque Nublo and still 70 degrees at the beach!

Our last day on the island, Friday, was fantastic. We took the city bus to Puerto de Mogan, a fishing village known as "Little Venice" due to its network of tiny bridges in town. Brightly colored Bouganveilla - oranges, pinks, purples - covered overhead arches and doorways on whitewashed Spanish-style buildings with tile roofs. Fisherman brought in the daily catches, local boys challenged tourists to "throw money in the water" so they could dive in and catch the coins before they hit bottom. The largely popular mercado is held here every Friday, which I visited while Damon snapped lots of great photographs. We walked along the town lagoon - a beach we wish we had discovered earlier in the week, as it was peaceful with very little wind - then had lunch on the boardwalk before catching a ferry boat that took us on a leisurely tour along the southwest coast before ending in Arguineguin, a working port town where we took the bus back to Playa del Ingles.

We enjoyed a few authentic Spanish tapas meals, one on Sunday and another on Christmas evening. Tapas Tango and Capaco are run by the same family and were lots of fun - great atmosphere, live music, food, wine. We also had an amusing Christmas Eve dinner at a place called ROMA, that alleged it was Italian, but was really a mix of international dishes - and everyone there was eating steak and potatoes! How sad; we had pizza and pasta while listening to some guy named Lorenzo who was up on a stage in front of the dining room with an electric keyboard and microphone. He looked like a bus driver and sang a song called, "The Pizza Song," which was sadly in our heads all week! It was a really funny night. We found an amazing Italian restaurant later in the week called Il Duomo di Milano farther inland from the beach. Many of the guests were Italian, so we were in the right place. :) Our last meal was at sunset on the Paseo Costa Canaria, savoring pizzas, Spanish wine, great views and fun memories from the week.

We went out to a few clubs on Friday night, but couldn't find a place where anyone was dancing, so we vowed to go dancing in Galway some night soon when we returned home.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's Christmas without a tree?

Because we are spending Christmas in the Canary Islands, we have no plans to decorate for Christmas whatsoever. I was a little bummed about not having a Christmas tree for the first time since living in Miami, but low and behold, our building maintenance workers decorated the entry way and stairway landings with some decorations. The tree, although a little scrawny, is located just outside our door - almost as good as having a tree of our own!

The Irish Patience

Lately, the old saying "patience is a virtue" is on my mind. Mostly because I've realized that many of us Americans have little patience. We want it all, and we want it right away, conveniently as possible. Why are we such an impatient society? The secret lies in Ireland: all the patience in the world lives in the hearts of the Irish. How can those of us Americans have any patience when the Irish are born with enough of the virtue to last the world twice over?

Here's just a few recent examples to prove my theory:

Yesterday, I was standing in the airport queue (line) waiting to check in. Like a typical American, I was on my cell phone, talking to someone about work, distracted and shuffling my bags as I moved closer to the front of the line. When it was my turn to check in, I had no idea: head turned, still talking. No one tapped me on the shoulder. The airline agent did not yell, "Next!" The people behind me did not say a word. They all just waited. Patiently.

That night, our door buzzer rang around 10:15 p.m. (Guests have to ring us from a locked door downstairs and then be buzzed in.) Damon said it was probably a wrong number and don't answer it. A few minutes later, it rang again. We didn't answer it. Then it rang again a few minutes later. This time, I answered it. It was, of all things, the UPS driver. He rang us 3-4 times over a 10-minute period, and never left. Just waited until we finally answered. He apologized for making deliveries so late but said it's really the only time people are home to accept packages.

Last week, Damon and I went to the Salthill Post to ship some Christmas goodies back to the States. We arrived about 5 minutes before closing, and there were five customers inside the Post office at closing time. A postal worker turned off the lights immediately and locked the door, so no additional customers could walk in. The three other customers were finished mailing their items before we were and walked to the door. Though I wasn't paying attention at the time, I realized when we were ready to leave and the worker came out from behind the till (cash register) to unlock the door for us, all the other customers had been standing in the dark at the door, quiet as church mice, locked inside a closed business. Not a peep. The level of patience in Irish society then became fascinating to us.

Damon also comments regularly about funny situations with Irish drivers on his daily commute: how he's yet to see an aggressive driver, and the Irish seem to yield to everyone and everything. He's always the first to make a move at the roundabouts. He just heard someone honk their horn in traffic for the first time this week. We've been here more than 3 months. There's a lot of traffic here in this congested town of 70,000 with lots of commuter communities on top of that population number. Can you imagine a city road or crowded parking lot anywhere in America without car horns blaring?

Maybe they have so much patience because the author of the famous proverb about this valuable character trait has been traced back to the 'Piers Plowman' (1377) by William Langland, an Englishman. When the book was published, many parts of Ireland were again controlled by the English, or at least in the midst of the Irish lords submitting to the English, after Richard II became King in 1377. "Patience is a virtue" has its roots not far from here, and it surprisingly hasn't been a lost after more than 600 years.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Damon's Paris

Here's a slide show of the pictures that Damon took and has had time to format since our trip to Paris. His photos are much prettier than the ones I posted in "Adventure #8: Paris."

Goodies from America arrive

I was giddy when I received two packages of goodies this week from friends back home. Ann Marie, Paula and Anju all sent us items we'd been missing from back home. Some of the highlights:

- Kosher salt
- Emerald Nuts (Pecan Pie)
- Pria bars (Chocolate Mint)
- Zone bars (Chocolate Peanut Butter)
- Kansas City barbecue sauce
- Made in Napa Valley rubs

I also received several issues of my favorite wine magazines from Julianna at the office.

Thanks, Ladies!

What's up with the weather?

We've had surprisingly great weather in Galway since arriving in early September. I couldn't believe how nice it was the first two weeks of November. Here are some pictures from November 7 (pictured top), when it looked like summer outside. But the rains and winds arrived at the end of the month, and I've also included a few pictures from December 1 (pictured bottom), so you can see how dark and dreary it gets. If you look closely at the bottom-left picture, you'll notice a die-hard swimmer in the lower right-hand corner, getting ready to walk out onto the yellow pier. These people are crazy! There was even a swimmer out this morning.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Irish Radio: Back to the Future?

Irish radio is where all bad (and once popular) American music comes to die. It's fascinating to us that DJs on the Top 40 radio stations will play Rihanna, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake or Beyonce, mixed in with some of our country's hits and misses from the 80s. It's an unexpected time warp that's not necessarily welcomed on the commute home from work, at least for Americans.

What we've heard on Irish radio recently:

- "Living on a Prayer" - Bon Jovi
- "I'm Bad" - Michael Jackson
- "Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go" - Wham
- "Gonna Make You Sweat" - C+C Music Factory
- "You Can't Hurry Love" - Phil Collins
- "Land of Confusion" - Phil Collins
- "Don't Stop Believin'" - Journey
- "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" - Journey

Sadly, it seems the Irish love two of my most hated singers of all time: Phil Collins and Steve Perry. Thank God I haven't heard any songs from Live yet on the radio, although that's a band with a few hits in the 1990s. My least favorite band of that decade and surprisingly, one of Damon's all-time favorites. One of the few things in life we disagree about is Live. "Lightning Crashes" ruined it for me. Those lyrics suck. Damon: I love you, but you are smokin' crack if you think this band is worth a hoot. I digress.

Also, I know a few of these artists are not Americas, per se, but I went ahead and included them under the umbrella of "American music." Sorry to all you die hard music history buffs out there. :)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A stroll through the neighborhood

Damon's been working a lot, and we've both been sick. Needless to say, I've been a little bored, so I thought it would be cool to take out the camera and show you some snapshots of daily life here in Galway.

From this slide show, you'll see:

- Our main street in Salthill and some of our favorite spots
- Our gym and its San Francisco-style side street
- Funny things in the grocery store
- City centre main street during holidays

Hope you find some of these as amusing as I did at first.

Irish Christmas Traditions #3: Mince Pies

When I first started shopping at the Dunnes grocery store here, I stumbled across a jar of "mincemeat" in the baking aisle while looking for ingredients to bake Damon's birthday cake. I was puzzled, wondering why a meat product would be found alongside flour, nuts and cake mixes. This is also where they display all their raisins, whereas our stores usually put the raisins in the snack aisle with granola bars and crackers. Raisins are a major ingredient in baking here, as I've found with the Christmas Pudding (or plum pudding) recipes (see "Irish Christmas Traditions #2..." post).

Mince pies are a British tradition, festive little pies consumed during Christmas and New Year's. Historically, they did contain meat, but nowadays, the only remnant of the original meat is the inclusion of suet (raw beef or mutton fat). Typically, the filling is now made entirely from fruit-based mincemeat containing dried fruit such as raisins, currants, glace cherries, apricot, candied peel; spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg; nuts such as walnuts or chopped almonds; suet; and some kind of alcohol, usually either brandy or rum.

Here's some great history on the Mince Pie:

This weekend, we heated some in the oven and topped them with ice cream. They were quite tasty.

Irish Christmas Traditions #2: Christmas Pudding

The aisles at the Galway grocery stores are packed with holiday goodies, many of which I've never seen or heard of until moving here. Sure, you'll find the usual endless boxes of chocolates and candy canes, but there's a ubiquitous treat called Irish Christmas Pudding, which I'm quite intrigued to try.

I've been researching it and learned that it's also called plum pudding, but doesn't contain any plums. Interesting. I guess plums are an essential part of any Irish Christmas feast. Christmas Pudding has its roots in England:

Here's a Christmas Pudding recipe:

Happy Holidays!

Irish Christmas Traditions #1: Hot Wine

I guess I'm not as worldly as I thought. Never had I considered -- or even heard of -- drinking wine hot before I moved to Ireland.

When we arrived at the Radisson Galway on Saturday night for Medtronic's Christmas party, in which 1,800 turned out (yikes), we were greeted in the lobby by Santa Claus and servers with trays of glasses filled with red wine. I noticed steam rising from the glasses and asked the girl, "Is this hot?" She replied, "Yes." I grimaced, and pointed to the next tray in the other server's arms. "That one too?" Sadly, she nodded. What the hey - why not try something new? I grabbed a glass and "gave it a go," as they say in Ireland. After the first sip, I was ready to give the glass back. It tasted like cheap red wine with lots of cloves. But coffee hot. The alcohol was through the roof, due to the heating, I bet. Ugh. Not my cup of tea.

Maybe the experience is so bizarre to me because I would never dream of drinking a wine hot. Some sort of Northern European tradition we won't be bringing back to the States!

The nasty concoction we tasted is probably a local recipe for the original hot wine, Hypocras, which is said to have been invented by Greek physician Hippocrates (5th century BCE). Hot wine is also big in Germany, England, even Austria, I believe.

But since there are lots of Polish immigrants here, it may have been a Polish recipe, such as this one:

You are more than welcome to try this one at home! Merry Christmas.