Thursday, September 27, 2007

Traveler's mental notes: Madrid and Granada

Ok, so I went to Spain the other day for about a week. The first half was to Madrid, for a MINI Cooper assignment; I was to drive the car on the wrong side of the road, come back in one piece and write a review of it before The Star does. The second half I went to Granada to see the Alhambra, something that I had wanted to do since I was a child.

I'm happy to report that mission was accomplished on both counts!

It was a dream assignment because, as I keep telling people, MINI Cooper is the only car I really care about. But Mom encouraged me to go one better: to stay for a few days and go see a bit of Spain. As a student, she used to hitchhike across Spain. She's quite cool that way.

But I was quite anxious -- very anxious, actually -- before the trip. For various reasons that, looking back, seem quite silly now. I wasn't worried about Madrid, I was worried about Granada. For 3 days, I would be left behind by my fellow Malaysians to fend for myself and I had never traveled alone in a foreign country. I was absolutely constipated about where to stay and how to get around, about costs, about getting mugged, about food. I worried about missing my flight and getting stranded without any money. I worried about the fact that the people there don't really speak English.

It would have been a lot easier to just go for the MINI Cooper thing and come back.

But now that I'm back from the trip, I've learnt these things:

1. Getting out of your comfort zone is always good.
2. Even when you don't have a proper plan, things have a way of falling into place.
3. Nice senoritas do pop out of nowhere to offer their assistance.


We stayed at Hotel Puerta America. The first thing I did when we arrived at the hotel was to find out about getting around. Good thing we didn't have any agenda for that day, so I had the whole day to explore the city.

Madrid has an elaborate underground train system with about 15 metro lines (I don't remember Stockholm having this many lines) but you can roam freely under the city for just 1e, which is good.

The not so good thing is you have to change trains so many times. I wanted to go to the Atocha Renfe station to buy a train ticket to Granada. From my hotel, I had to change trains 3 times to get there.

(Atocha, as you may recall, was the site of the 2004 train bombing in Madrid which killed 191 people and wounded 2,050.)

Renfe is the company that operates the intercity trains in Spain. Sort of like our KTM. Their train schedule doesn't seem to be fixed, so you have to get the latest schedule before you book. Some trains are direct, some have many stops. Some only travel on weekdays, some only Sunday. I managed to get a ticket to Granada for a Sunday Altaria train but to come back from Granada, there was no train that would help me arrive on time for my flight. So I had to look for another mode of transportation.

The Madrid-Granada train ticket cost me a whopping 59e (about RM283). A bus would've cost just 15e as I later discovered but I wouldn't have it any other way. I simply had to see what the train ride was like.

The language problem was real. I find myself asking people "habla usted ingles?" (do you speak English) all the time. And when they said "noa" I was in trouble, like this one time when I wanted to buy a ticket. Fortunately, a nice senorita popped into the picture. "I can help you translate," she offered.

Another problem in Madrid was food. Of course BMW did their best for the two Muslim journos in our group, but meat was pretty much out of the question. I did however manage to find a Turkish kebab restaurant near our hotel.

(Kebab is fast building a reputation as the staple diet for this Muslim traveler.)

Anyway, this restaurant was located near a hotel called Abba Hotel. Wonder what's the story behind the name.

Went there once for buka puasa (the Turkish restaurant, not Abba Hotel). There was a man there who looked like the owner. He spoke little English, I spoke little Spanish. So the conversation went: muslim food? si, muslim. muslim? si, muslim. muslim. muslim! ah, ramadan! yes, ramadan! err... sahur? open? sahur, si.

Mom later said she didn't think the meat at Turkish restaurants was halal. But I told her I went there in good faith.

MINI Cooper drive

We tested a new model called MINI Cooper Clubman which is coming to Malaysia in March next year. At first blush, there's nothing unusual about the car. It's 24cm longer than the normal MINI so you have more legroom for the backseat passenger. Fine, but the unusual part comes out when you start playing with the doors. This is an asymmetrical animal. The Clubman has an additional 'suicide door' (BMW doesn't like the word suicide door, they call it the Clubdoor) but only on the right hand side of the car.

There were about 70 to 80 journalists from various parts of the world that day, and about 40 cars so each car had two drivers. I partnered Adrian Yap from KLue magazine. We went along some of the best routes we had ever seen, especially the mountain roads of Rascafria where the highest point was 1700m above sea level.

The roads were narrow and twisty. There were quite a number of tight hairpins too. Some of the cliffside roads reminded me of James Bond movies: if you go off the cliff, that's it -- game over.

We encountered a classic car convoy during our drive. This is a 1970s Porsche I think.

We were wondering what this place used to be before it was abandoned.

Adrian really pushed the car, at one point going at 200km/h. I didn't go that fast. Every time I wanted to push the car, the faces of my kids popped into my mind. It would've been different I guess if we were on a track. This was a public road. Sure, there was not much traffic save for a few other cars and groups of cyclists, but I didn't want to push my luck. My kids need me alive.


The journey to Granada took about 4.5 hours on board that Altaria train. It was off-peak season and the train was empty.

The first thing I noticed when I boarded the train was that it smelled of urine! Turned out that the aseos (toilet) was located right next to the door.

This is the Granada train station. It is smaller than even the one in my hometown Kajang.

I stayed at Macia Plaza (pronounced mathia plafa) which was recommended to me by the reception people at our hotel in Madrid. Paid about 130e for 2 nights for it, which was very expensive. But I wasn't complaining. The hotel is located smack in the middle of Plaza Nueva, arguably one of the most happening places in Granada. It is close to both the Alhambra and the historical village of Albaicin.

There is a shortcut from in front of my hotel straight up to the Alhambra. I loved walking up.

But if I felt lazy, these buses cost just 1 euro. Their small size allows them to ply the narrow streets up the Alhambra and the cobblestoned labyrinth that is Albaicin.

Anyway, this was my reason for visiting Granada: to see the "alambra", the last bastion of Muslim Spain which fell to the Christians in 1492.

I'm not gonna go into details about the fortress. You can get those from Lonely Planet. But just to share that I almost didn't make it into the walls. See, normally you need to book your Alhambra ticket (10e) in advance because they limit the number of visitors in order to protect the place. Due to bad planning, when I arrived in Granada I still didn't have any ticket. I tried Internet booking when I was in Madrid but apparently you need to allow one week. I tried buying through an appointed bank (Caixa) but the ATM machine wasn't working properly. Plus, at some point, the menu switched involuntarily to Spanish. So there was a lot of drama.

My last resort was to go to the Alhambra early in the morning and queue up. I was there by 7.30am. There was already a long line but eventually I got my ticket.

While queueing up, I got to know the couple behind me. Robert and Evelyn (can't remember their surname) traveled from LA, California to see Spain. They were originally from the Philipines. We got along really well and talked about many subjects. It was inevitable I guess that the conversation veered towards religion. He said something thought provoking: "If the Spanish didn't land in the Philipines but in Malaysia, things might have been different. I might be Muslim now and you might be Christian".

A section of the old Moorish quarter of Albaicin, viewed from the Alhambra.

With the Alhambra visit out of the way, I thought I'd just go around and find out how the Muslims in Granada live.

Islam is well reperesented in Granada. There is a growing Muslim population in the city consisting people from North African countries like Algeria and Morocco and Spanish converts. This means what? Food isn't a problem. Yay!

I found plenty of halal restaurants, including this shop selling halal meat. Many of them are located in the back alleys.

There was however a bit of a language barrier. They speak Spanish, French and Arabic, but very little English, while I speak English but very little Spanish, French and Arabic. So often we had to switch back and forth between these four languages.

I was in a restaurant once and wanted to order kebab. Guy didn't understand English. All of a sudden a cheerful looking senorita appeared. "I can help you translate," she said. I didn't get her name but she said she was from Italy and had been living and working in Granada for so many years.

While waiting for my kebab, I tried to make small talk. "Is this a Muslim restaurant?" I asked her and she said "Yeah, but you can eat here. They're okay." :)

I also found two mosques, one is located just behind my hotel (converted from a shoplot) and the other is the Mezquita Mayor de Granada (the Great Mosque of Granada).

This is the Great Mosque. Actually It's quite small lah.

The Granada Mosque was opened in 2003. It is located in Albaicin, side-by-side with Mirador de San Nicolas (the Church of San Nicolas).

It is built on a higher part of Granada, affording it this magnificent view of the Alhambra. So people like to come here for this and the mosque authority has built a nice little garden to accomodate them.

Here is an interesting article by the New York Times on the mosque.

The media likes to potray the mosque as though it was the first to be opened in Spain in last 500 years, but that's not really true. According to the kebab guy, there were already about 5 other mosques in the city.

I went to the one behind my hotel. They were so happy to have a visitor from Malaysia and since it was Ramadan, invited me to a their buka puasa (breaking of fast) which I attended.

The meal was simple: some kind of meat soup dish eaten with bread. I was so hungry, I ate a lot and drank a lot. After the buka puasa, I went back to my hotel room and watched some TV. Big mistake. I dozed off and missed the tarawih prayer at the mosque.

Funny signs from Spain

This was at the metro in Madrid. Pitis is a Kelantanese word for money. So go left for free money.

Here's another one from the metro.

Madrid. Let me help you read that: Hornimans Tea.

Granada. Hotel room.

Granada. Sahur time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

I've been tagged

I just returned from a trip to Madrid. MINI Cooper test drive. Dream assignment, nothing less.

Also extended my stay in Spain and went south to Granada. Would like to tell about it now but something more urgent just came up: apparently I have been tagged, courtesy of my good friend Arni. I've never been tagged before but I think I'm getting the hang of what this is all about. So here goes:

5 things in my bag:
- Agnetha, my laptop
- capal yang baru dibeli dari Granada
- 2 iPods
- camera and charger
- bills to be paid

5 things in my wallet:
- the usual cards
- McDonald's voucher (have a McChicken on us, it says)
- receipts from Spain trip
- old Komuter tickets with stuff scribbled on the back (my account number, my ex's account number -- I have these with me all the time to make it easy to pay child support -- and also some joke ideas and the phone number of a friend in America
- photos of my eldest son Syakir

5 favourite things in my favourite room:
that would be my bedroom
- books on ABBA and Steve Jobs
- Bumblebee
- a radio controlled toy car (Mercedes SLR McLaren)
- miniature MINI Cooper Convertible
- a sketch book from my university days

5 things I would like to do:
- work in Sweden
- marry a Swede
- compose a song
- raise confident kids
- go see the Alhambra (oh wait, I just did)

5 things I'm currently doing:
- fasting
- reeling from the 2-day journey from Granada. No it wasn't exactly 2 days but it sure felt like it.
- thinking about the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the new Nano that I got to play with today
- helping Cedric with a cartoonist convention
- thinking about where to bring the family for makan for my second son Zuhayr's birthday

I would now like to tag Chris, Afida, Kluxorious, Syed and Allan.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Chris just got a MacBook

My friend Chris just got himself a MacBook.

It was his first Mac, I was told. He had been using Windows all along and had heard good things about Macs, particularly about how it would benefit people like him who are into photography. I'm sure he had toyed with the idea of switching in the past, but kept putting it off for whatever reason.

Maybe he's a firm believer in the adage 'don't put off till tomorrow what you can put off today'.

But the deal breaker came in the form of two recent events:

1. The generic laptop which he bought in China started to develop problems that are mission-critical in nature (hey, when all you want to do is write your thesis and your laptop won't let you do it, it IS mission-critical).

2. I showed him and Julia the silly 5-minute video.. Or at least it is what I'd like to believe.

Hence the MacBook.

The day after he bought it, Chris called to say that he was having a great time with his new toy, that he had already made a video and was about to post it on YouTube, and that perhaps we should organise a little MacBook party soon.

Wait a minute. What happened to that thesis thing?

Chris' purchase came on the heels of another friend's purchase. Eija got her MacBook soon after returning home to Helsinki in July.

In her case, she turned out to be a closet Mac user. Apparently, she had been secretly lusting after my Agnetha and only confessed to me about it when she went back to her home city.

What the?

Think this is a Photoshop job? Think again.