Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Traveling Cyclist: Andalucia, Spring 2009. Part One.

On a shockingly clear mid-March morning in Salobrena, a small village on the Costa Tropical of Spain, the sun is already hot, the Mediterranean is its lustrous turquoise blue, the swallows are dipping and diving like trapeze artists at the circus, the almond trees are in various stages of bloom, the orange and lemon tress hang heavy with fruit, and the strong scent of rosemary is enough to make one giddy.
Then the infernal, ubiquitous blue-white smoke of the farmers' valley fires rises to sear your eyes. Depending on the direction of the win--and generally, there is wind--the lazy smoke will turn north towards the mighty giants of the snow capped Sierra Nevada, or it will sway listlessly out over the sea. There is yet a third and rarer option if there is no wind: the wiry thin wisps of smoke will twist like spun cotton and rise ever upwards until the temperature variation traps the ghostly vapors and the valley fills with a smoky haze smelling of burnt earthly refuse.
In all cases, the smoke merges with the dust and other pollutants and particulates—which in the south of Spain are abundant for a number of reasons: the sun-scorched earth and beaches are a constant source of dust and sand; the multifarious plants are in a near constant state of bloom meaning pollen is omnipresent; and in the far south of Europe, where northern European uppityness and love for regulations like emissions controls is flagrantly snubbed, thousands of antiquated Citroens, Peugeots, Seats and Fiats trundle around carrateras and autovias in sundry states of disrepair to lend an (un)healthy dose of unfiltered diesel and gasoline fumes to top off the cocktail. The resultant mixture is a haze that migrates from a pleasing bluish-white at about 7:00am to a poor imitation of slurry brown by 3:00pm.
But none of this, not the ceaseless smell of burning palm leaves, not the afternoon brown cloud, not the choking fumes of derelict vehicles, not even the eardrum shattering din of 49cc motorbikes heralded by testosterone crazed 16 year olds can detract from the destabilizing beauty of this remote corner of Andalucia.
Salobrena lies roughly 90 kilometers to the east of Malaga and equally as far south from Granada. Within the confines of the points which form this triangle is some of the most strikingly beautiful and inhospitable land in all of Europe. But the abundance of water from the Sierra Nevada, the fertile coastal plains and valleys of the southern Mediterranean, the natural ports and ease of access to north Africa made this such an attractive destination for numerous historical peoples including the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths, and eventually Arabs and Jews impressed upon al-Andalus a glorious and lasting infrastructure and culture that resulted in such masterful works as the Alhambra and a sinewy network of irrigation canals and an unprecedented lattice work of trellises and sublime stone terraces.
In addition to all this, the cities of Cordoba and Granada were unrivaled centers of modernity providing scholarship and learning where Europe's first universities were founded, and where advances in medicine, art, architecture, and mathematics flourished. These ingenious advances carry dramatic influence on our contemporary, everyday life (including algebra and algebraic geometry). Public waste removal, public and private plumbing, sewage systems, hydro-powered water mills, and even street lighting were for the first time introduced in Andalus in the 9th Century.
What was accomplished in Andalus between the 8th Century and end of the 15th Century was earth shattering in the history of human development. But it was arguably undone--or at least, unravele--when Los Reyes Catolicos took control of the political reigns. In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabelle unified Spain and, in a rousing display of historical irony, ruled it from the glorious Moorish palace, Alhambra. In short order their initial semi-tolerance for Arabs and Jews was betrayed by the declaration of Reconquista, the zealous reconquering of the existing and harmonious geo-political-cultural landscape with their own brand of divisive and intolerant Christian ideals (in reality, a thinly veiled attempt to steal the wealth of non-Christians and to set off about the "New World" looking for gold under the holy subterfuge of spreading the word of the Christian God).
Religious intolerance is a remarkably common theme.
But forget about that: I'm in Andalucia, more precisely in the provincial town of Salobrena, to do what I love most, ride my bike. One could do much worse than land on their feet in this part of the world only to climb on two wheels for some much needed spring training.

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