MARCH 29 to APRIL 5, 2015
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. You may have heard about Seville’s spectacular celebration of Holy Week, the run-up to Easter during which dozens of ancient statues of the suffering Jesus and weeping Mary are carried through the streets day and night, surrounded by massive entourages, throngs of locals, and a million out-of-town visitors.
It’s exhilarating to be part of something so vast and so magnificent. And although it’s a solemn religious tradition observed in the strictest form, it also has its festive side, with parties and celebrations throughout the week.
But what they don’t tell you about Semana Santa is that underneath it all, it’s meant to be an ordeal. The theme is suffering, and we are all invited to join in.
Take the costaleros, for instance, the brawny guys who volunteer to carry the platforms holding the statues. Those platforms typically weigh about 2,400 kilos (5,300 pounds) and are supported by 40 men, each bearing 60 kilos (132 pounds) on his neck. Ouch! It makes my spine spasm just to watch them, particularly when they add special flourishes, such as making the platform sway in a sort of dance or coming out of the church doorway on their knees. It can take 12 hours for a procession to leave its home church, wend its way to the cathedral to pay homage, then make the return journey. Teams of costaleros rotate with relief crews, and those coming off duty usually head to the nearest bar, where they are given instant service and free beer. They've earned it.
Each procession has an entourage of 500 to 2500 Nazarenos dressed in robes and cone-shaped headdresses that look eerily like those of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not a coincidence; KKK members saw the outfits and adopted them, liking their creepy atmosphere and absolute anonymity. Some Nazarenos dress all in black and march through night in silence, like a stealth battalion of Darth Vaders.
Just being a spectator requires considerable stamina. With more than 60 processions crisscrossing the city day and night for an entire week, you can spend hours sprinting through the streets, struggling to decipher route maps on the fly in an effort to catch the next breathtaking statue and avoid getting caught in a human traffic jam with nothing to see but endless lines of identical Nazarenos.
As the week progresses, the streets become impassable, all ordinary business stops, and most downtown cafés block off their entrances and set up a bar selling sandwiches and canned drinks to the passing mobs. It’s hard to find anyplace offering a sit-down meal and a rest room. As a substitute for the latter, the little alleyway I live on is often pressed into service, adding another small layer of suffering to the week.
Semana Santa can become overwhelming, and even retreating to your apartment or hotel and barricading the door isn't enough to keep it entirely at bay. The relentless soundtrack of the bands — part funeral dirge, part military march — wafts in through the windows at all hours.
In spite of myself, I find the music of approaching bands begins to stir my blood, and before I know it I’m dropping whatever I’m doing and running downstairs for a look. To step outside and discover the Virgin swaying into view, her face glowing in the light of dozens of tall white candles, is magical. People lean over balcony railings to toss rose petals onto the lacy canopy swaying over her head, and occasionally someone will break out into one of the “arrows of song” known as a saeta to praise her and thank her for keeping Seville safe during another year. My neighbors stand in the street, weeping.
This is what I love about Semana Santa: the reminder that while suffering is only too common in this world, every once in a while, we also have the chance to feel touched by glory.
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“How about taking the night train to Lisbon?” Rich said last week, as we were mapping out an upcoming trip to Portugal.
“Didn’t they make a movie about that?” I asked. They did, and we watched it as part of our trip research, hoping to see what kind of accommodations and scenery we could expect. Imagine our disappointment when all we saw was Jeremy Irons' back as he climbs aboard the train in drizzly Switzerland and then — cut! — he’s standing on a street corner in sunny Lisbon.
“We were robbed,” I said to Rich.
Later there was a flashback that showed him on the train, sitting up all night in an ordinary, modern railway car; not particularly inspiring. But by then I'd become caught up in the story, and the movie soon became added to my list of top ten favorite travel films.
1. Night Train to Lisbon (Portugal)
Jeremy Irons plays a Swiss professor of ancient languages who follows the trail of a mysterious woman and uncovers the truth about the turbulent lives, loves, and betrayals of young resistance fighters during Salazar’s dictatorship.
2. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (India)
British pensioners (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and others) on tight budgets retire to the gorgeously chaotic state of Rajasthan, India, living at a dilapidated hotel run by an energetic but overwhelmed young man played by Dev Petel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame).
3. Before Sunset (France)
Not every conversation in the streets and cafés of Paris is sizzling with this kind of intellectual debate and sexual tension, but the setting manages to heighten the excitement of the encounter of lovers parted for nine years.
4. The Hobbit (New Zealand)
OK, I realize Middle Earth is a fictional place, but the New Zealand scenery in this series of films is seriously breathtaking.
5. Sideways (California)
You’ll learn more about wine than you ever wanted to know and will hesitate before ordering Merlot in public ever again. But you'll also thirst for the opportunity to go wine tasting in California.
6. Dr. Zhivago (Russia and Spain. Yes, Spain.)
Winner of six Academy Awards, this film classic will make you long to visit Russia — but preferably not in wartime. Or winter. The Soviets banned the book and refused to let in film crews, so most of the movie was actually shot in Spain.
7. Babel (Morocco, Japan, Mexico, USA)
A complicated plot involving four families in different parts of the world makes this film a little dizzying to watch, but the drama is riveting and the settings spectacular. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, it won Best Picture in the Golden Globes. And yes, that's a rather scruffy Brad Pitt on the phone...
8. Volver (Spain)
Penelope Cruz, the first Spaniard nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, gives a sizzling yet comedic performance as a mother who will go to any lengths to protect her daughter while coping with her own mother, who comes back from the dead.
9. The Motorcycle Diaries (Argentina to Peru)
Two young guys seek fun and adventure on a road trip through Latin America. One of them, med student Che Guevara, is so shocked by the poverty, hunger and disease he sees that he makes sweeping changes in his own life and the region's history.
10. Chef (LA, Miami, Austin, New Orleans)
The real star of this movie is the Cuban sandwich, lovingly prepared by a disgraced master chef who goes back to his roots, driving a food truck from Miami through the South to LA. You'll drool all through the film then insist on going out for Cuban food, if not actually to Cuba.
These and many other films have influenced my journeys over the years. What are your favorite travel movies? What impact did they have on your life and your imagination?
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Flipping through a book of travel tips the other day, I discovered this little gem: “Scared of rats in the dark in a strange room across the globe? Be sure to wash your hands. Those cookie crumbs on your fingertips will be the ones to get licked first.” Yikes! A valuable safety precaution! Yet I couldn’t help thinking that even better advice would have been to suggest that if you’re sharing your quarters with vermin such as rats, you should — call me crazy! — seek other accommodations.
I realize that I am always encouraging people to say "yes” to spontaneity and that I frequently tout the charms of vacationing in dubious places, but that doesn’t mean throwing common sense to the winds. Pickpocket gangs and other nefarious characters are gearing up for the spring and summer vacation season, and you should too. The more we learn about how street criminals operate, the easier it will be to foil their dastardly plans.
1. Don’t carry valuables in a backpack, an unzipped purse, or anywhere else that you can’t watch properly. While you’re admiring the scenery or looking out for a bus, nimble-fingered pickpockets behind you in the crowd may be happily extracting all your belongings. Backpacks are fine for water bottles, spare sweaters, and (if well hidden deep in the interior) maybe your iPhone or camera. But I don’t recommend tempting fate by putting your passport and all your cash in an easy to access outer pocket. Watch how pickpockets in Napoli work together to lift your stuff:
2. Be aware that cash machines are magnets for thieves. Urban folklore alleges that when a reporter asked the prolific American bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton said, “Because that’s where the money is.” Today’s robbers know that the money is in ATMs, and they have devised various schemes for getting it, starting with the simple but effective grab-and-run approach. They also know that you’ll have both eyes on the screen while trying to sort out the value of 15,000 Hungarian florints; by the time you calculate that it’s $51.96, your luggage may be long gone. That’s how my friend Debbie lost her backpack, stuffed with her passport and all her valuables, en route to an overseas wedding.
3. Learn about common street scams. If strangers offer you a gold ring, try to tie a string around your wrist, or appear to be dropping a baby at your feet — look out! They are most likely distracting you while their colleagues are slipping things out of your pockets. (See video above!) Once a Paris subway passenger dropped a lighted cigarette, shouted that my friend Jim’s trousers were on fire, and began slapping at Jim’s ankles. A seasoned traveler, Jim reacted by whirling around just in time to foil the efforts of the smoker’s light-fingered accomplice.
Helpful hint: Thieves are well aware that when law abiding travelers pass a “Beware of Pickpockets” sign, the first thing most do is touch their wallet to reassure themselves it’s still there. Try to avoid sending this helpful signal to local criminals who may be wondering where you keep your best stuff.
4. Never ride with a taxi driver who accosts you inside the airport or train station. I’ve been to transportation hubs in 50 countries, and all had taxi stands outside and regulations (however loosely enforced) against freelancers approaching tourists as they arrive. These freelancers will likely attempt to overcharge you, steal your money, make off with your bags, or at the very least spend the entire ride trying to persuade you to bypass the hotel you booked to get a “better deal” from their cousin.
5. Don’t go home with people who approach you on the street offering lodgings for the night. This is the fastest way I know to wind up someplace where you’ll need to wash the cookie crumbs off your hands to avoid attracting rats.
Even savvy, seasoned travelers get ripped-off occasionally. All we can do is try to minimize the risk, and learn how to cope if it happens to us. Have you ever been swindled, robbed, or fleeced on the road?
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I thought I was pretty savvy about the dangers lurking in hotel rooms; my bedbug checks are second to none, and I can chain a suitcase to a radiator in ten seconds flat. But then I ran across the Hotel Inspector and realized I had a lot to learn. It seems that today’s selfless manufacturers are working hard to develop a host of oddball products that skillfully separate travelers from their money.
The Hotel Inspector is an ultraviolet flashlight that enables you to see invisible substances lurking in your hotel room, including blood, urine, saliva, and semen. Yikes! For years I’ve worked diligently to ignore the suspicion that my hotel room was crawling with these foul residues. Once the UV beam reveals their revolting presence, what am I supposed to do about it? Ask housekeeping to send up a hazmat team?
Those of you who enjoy stealing hotel hangers but hate the "theft-proof" models will be delighted to hear you can now purchase special adapters that let you convert hookless hangers for home use. ConvertAHanger claims their product is designed to let you move the hangers to the hotel room's bathroom to steam wrinkled clothes and dry laundry. Right. (Wink!) Just don’t forget to register under a fake name, remove all your fingerprints from the hotel room, and go to confession afterward.
“Neither a pillow nor a cushion,” says the Ostrich Pillow website, “nor a bed nor a garment, but a bit of each at the same time.” They note this contraption is perfect for power napping in airports and offices. Yes, I can see it would effectively frighten your fellow passengers into leaving you alone, but do you really want your boss seeing you snoozing at your desk looking like you belong on the set of Plan 9 From Outer Space?
With all my other complaints about air travel, I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me that what was really lacking was an opportunity for self-expression. Luckily PlaneSheets invented these stylish slipcovers. Wouldn’t it be more fun to fly into a war zone sitting on the Chenille Minky Green Camouflage print? How about his and hers Zany Zebra covers for that Vegas honeymoon? What about the Candyland Good N Plenty pattern for the kids? And claims that these covers are more hygienic can be verified with your handy Hotel Inspector.
A friend leaving on her honeymoon was given a packet Urinelle paper funnels, designed to let women urinate while standing up. When she got home, she handed me the packet with only one missing. “You try it,” she said. “Maybe you’ll have better luck.” A month later, I found myself standing in a swaying railway toilet in Thailand trying to hold the paper cone in place while avoiding all contact with the grimy surfaces. The results? Unspeakable disaster. Unlike the woman in the Urinelle video, I have absolutely decided not to take this product into the men’s room and stand shoulder to shoulder with the guys at the urinals. You have my word on it.
All of the above products are real, but I’ll leave you with two more that have become Internet legends. Extensive research (well, ten minutes on Google) reveals that sadly, neither of these products is available for purchase. I can’t imagine why.
Investing in frivolous accessories can be fun, and if you’re tempted to try one of these – or other screwball products – don’t let me stop you. In fact, send me photos and details of your best/worst travel gizmo experiences!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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