My Most and Least Favorite Things About Spain

Spain has been an interesting contrast with the other countries in which we have lived over the past three years. As we prepare to move on, it is natural to reflect on the high points and the low ones. Here are some thoughts about what I most enjoyed and least enjoyed about Spain.

#1 Least Favorite – Dog poop

I find it incredible that dog owners in towns all around Spain do not clean up after their poopy dogs. There are piles of dog crap on almost every sidewalk of every block of every town I have visited. The big cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, and so on, are well-enough funded to have maintenance employees in the city centers who pick up pet poop along with garbage. Not so in the other areas of the towns. If the people of Spain had any idea how disgusting it is to tourists to have to dodge these piles, and how poorly it reflects on their country, they might do a better job of enforcing dog sanitation regulations. Thank goodness dogs are outlawed on the beaches!

#1 Most Favorite – The people

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me.  Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me. Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

We have made friends in every country we have visited, and Spain was no exception. It is always the memories of places and events shared with locals and fellow travelers that seem the most vivid. Even if we never see some of these friends again, we will never forget the kindnesses they have shared with us that made our time in Spain memorable.

#2 Least Favorite – The poor

There are poor people in every country, but that is no reason to forget about them. The poor economy hit Spain harder than most industrialized countries, and they have lagged behind the rest of the world in recovering. Personally, I think Spain has the resources it needs to take care of its people. Unfortunately, much of the revenues that flow into the economy seem to get siphoned off through corruption and unethical business practices.

When Spain recently announced Felipe VI as their new king, he proclaimed he would work to achieve greater equality and more opportunities for the unemployed and the needy. I hope he has the influence, the leadership and the integrity to bring about these benefits for his people.

#2 Most Favorite – The Food

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

I love fresh markets, and Spain is a fantastic place to find countless varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil and prepared foods to meet most people’s tastes. The land is fertile and productive. There is no reason for the people of Spain to ever go hungry. We also learned they make delicious chocolate in Spain!

#3 Least Favorite – Pickpockets

In the resort towns along the coast, there is little concern about personal safety and security. I have never felt unsafe walking alone or with my wife. And even though we were never directly approached in the big cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Cordoba – we were always cautioned to be on the lookout for pickpockets. This was especially true in the bus and train stations whenever we were toting luggage. After having my wallet lifted in Rome, I have become more vigilant about watching out for thieves. They have become quite sophisticated in some instances. For example, I witnessed a well-dressed man in a fine suit carrying a clipboard and hanging around our hotel in Granada while the tour buses were unloading. When he saw that everyone remained standing next to their personal bags and he noticed my wife and I were watching him, he walked away.

#3 Most Favorite – The Weather

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja's many local parks.

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja’s many local parks.

Although the Costa Blanca has experienced its worst drought year on record and there have been dozens of brush fires in the surrounding countryside, it has been pleasant living on the coast just a few short blocks from the beach. The evening breezes coming of the Mediterranean Sea are cool and refreshing. In fact, we have seen rain here on the southern coast of Spain just a handful of times during our stay. We have been most fortunate weather-wise when we take into account that Madrid received over a foot accumulation of hail on July 3rd. The traffic on the freeways feeding this city of 3.2 million was brought to a standstill and the precipitation eroded the track of the high speed train from Alicante to Madrid. The Metro subway and the airport were flooded forcing delays and diversion of flights. I am grateful that we live on the Costa Blanca where it was 85°F and sunny.

There is something for everyone in Spain, and I am sure I will think of more things I could have added to this list after we leave.  Suffice it to say Spain should be on your list of countries to visit. Should you decide to go, I will be watching for your stories so that I might reminisce about our time in Spain. Buen viaje!

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The Top 10 Best Things About Croatia

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

Counting down, these items make my list of the ten best things I discovered about Croatia.

10. Fresh fruits and vegetables

There is a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

The fresh markets offer a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

Everything grows fresh in Croatia.  We were fortunate to be living in Croatia during harvest season.  There were melons, pomegranates, figs, plums, grapes and apples.  And there was citrus.  Almost the entire Neretva River Delta is planted with citrus – mandarins, lemons and several varieties of oranges and they are quite affordable.  Other fruits like bananas and tropical fruits are imported.  The variety seems endless and prices are quite good. 

9.   Coffee

Every place we have visited has a coffee bar (or two or three) on every block, or so it seems.  I am not saying that the coffee is as good as what we could purchase at every market in Panama or Costa Rica where it was grown and picked and roasted within walking distance of our house.  But every café, bar and coffee shop in Croatia has an espresso machine, and it is a custom in Croatia to ‘take coffee’ for almost any occasion.

8.   Olive oil and wine

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

I think everyone in Croatia either has their own olive trees or is related to someone who does.  The same goes for vineyards.  They make a lot of olive oil in Croatia, and they also make a lot of wine.  Production numbers seem small compared to wine growing regions in other parts of the world, but Croatia’s population is only about 4.5 million, and they consume most of what they produce.  However, wine lovers who get a taste of the finer Croatian wines will likely wish to add some bottles to their collections.

7.   Cheese

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia.  Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia. Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

I confess I love cheese.  And I have come to learn that not every country has great cheeses.  Croatia got it right!  There is probably as much cheese-making tradition in Croatia as there is making olive oil and wine.  Lucky for me!

6.   Bakery breads and other goodies

You should not expect to find a bread aisle in the supermarket.  All breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are made fresh daily in a bakery.  There are in-store bakeries and independent bakery shops on nearly every block in the commercial areas.  Many Croatians still bake their own items if they have time.

5.   Natural beauty

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

Where do I begin?  The Dalmatian Coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Skradinski Falls in Krka National Park, the Neretva River Delta, Lake Vrana, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the natural springs.  Croatia is so diverse that the list of scenic spots seems never ending. 

4.   Clean air

To me there are two key items that define ‘quality of life.’  Being able to breathe clean air is one of those things, and it is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia, especially on the Dalmatian Coast with its steady breezes.

3.   Clean water

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

This is the second key ‘quality of life’ item, and Croatia has abundant resources of clear, clean water.  Many of their rivers are spring-fed at their sources.  You can dip your cup or water bottle into most streams and expect to get pure water better than the bottled water for sale at the market.  Wherever I travel I compare the water with what I experienced in my youth hiking past creeks and streams in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  Clean water is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia.

2.   History and Culture

The medieval fortress near Samobar reminds of the civilization that existed here long ago.

The medieval fortress near Samobor reminds us of the civilization that existed here long ago.

Croatia may have finally appeared as a country on geography maps in the last twenty years.  However, as a region with a distinct culture, Croatia has a history of its own dating back over 1,500 years.  Many of the traditional foods, dress, music and dances are still common today.  They have their own language, their own art, their great legends and their heroes.  All of these traditions are woven into the fabric of everyday life.  One of the great things about traveling in Croatia is the people are eager to tell their stories and share their culture.

1.   The people

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most lasting memories.

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most treasured memories.

I have said this before and it bears repeating.  The people of Croatia have been among the most welcoming, most hospitable and most caring of any we have met in any country we have visited.  They care how you feel about their country and about them.  They want you to appreciate the beauty, the history and culture, the food, the wine, and their hospitality.  And I do!

One more thing, the women in Croatia are quite style-conscious.  In the cities and towns women seldom go out in public without putting on makeup and nice clothes.  At first I thought there was simply a high percentage of striking-looking women.  Then I realized that women of all ages take great care to look their best in public.  The men, not so much.  They may be ruggedly handsome, but they do not dress up unless they are hoping to impress the women.  That however, is a whole new story.

 

Top 10 Things I Love About Mexico

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Our stay in Mexico is approaching the end, and it is appropriate to reflect on our experiences. We still have another month and a half before our final departure. However, I will be on assignment in the U.S. for four weeks. So before our stay draws to a close I want to share my Top 10 list for Mexico:

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

1. Restaurant Food – There are fabulous restaurants in Mexico. Our host, Jim Horn, has introduced us to the finest eateries in Cuernavaca.
2. Fresh Fruit – The variety and abundance of fresh fruit is the best in the Western Hemisphere. Everything grows here.
3. Hospitality – The people are friendly and helpful. They want visitors to feel welcome, and we do!
4. Health Care – On the few occasions when we needed care, we found world class health care at reasonable prices on our “pay-as-you-go” plan.
5. Climate – While it was snowing in places in the U.S., I was getting a tan. Enough said.
6. Cheese – Before arriving in Mexico, I was craving good cheese. We found great cheeses in Mexico!
7. History – The remains of civilization in Mexico rivals the relics of the Old World dating back thousands of years.
8. Butterflies and Hummingbirds – We have never seen so many of these beautiful creatures in one place.
9. Diversity of Culture – Movies, art, theater, music, indigenous culture, it is all here.
10. Infrastructure for Tourism – There is an excellent transportation system and the roads are well maintained.

Honorable Mention

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Safety – The bad rap Mexico gets in the American media is simply unfair. We have felt as secure in Mexico as anyplace we have been in the U.S. or any other country we have visited.
Tranquility – Our recent visit to the town square on a Sunday was typical. Families were out with their children. Young people strolled while holding hands. Elderly folks sat with friends in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee.
Shopping – We frequently stroll among shops and stalls to see what is for sale. Most recently we bought a brightly painted ceramic crucifix for 40 pesos ($3.40) and a nicely crafted carry-on backpack for 180 pesos ($16.50).

Did we miss anything?

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my "office."

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my “office.”

Mexico is a big country, and we missed seeing a lot of it. Neither of us are what you would call “beach people,” so we did not visit the coast. Nor did we make it to Puebla, Yucatan or the lush southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. There is simply too much of Mexico to take in over a short span of time. Some might say, “But you had six months! That is plenty of time to see so much of Mexico.” That may seem true. However, we are not on vacation. Vacation living is often expensive and exhausting.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

We adopted our Six Monther lifestyle to take life at a normal pace. We attended some expat meetings. We saw a couple of first-run movies. We found local shops for food and services. We adopted exercise routines. We even published a book. In order to take in more of the things worth seeing, we will need to return someday and perhaps we will. However, there is much of the world yet to see.

Our home for the second half of 2013 will be Scotland. Have you visited Scotland? What do you think is a must-see destination?

living in Mexico

Top 10 Things I Will Miss About Panama

When the time comes to say goodbye to a place that has been home for many months, one cannot help but reflect on the experiences gained in that time. It is with mixed feelings that I think back on this unique period before setting off on a new adventure. One of my first stories was The Top 10 Things I Love About Panama. Interestingly, the two lists are not as similar as I thought they would be.

  1. Clean air – I was raised on oxygen-rich air in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The rains regularly washed the pollutants out of the air. In that sense, Panama has been just like home.
  2. Locally grown coffee – After a recent visit to Los Angeles and tasting what passes for coffee in restaurants and hotels, I realize I have been spoiled by some of the greatest tasting coffee on the planet.
  3. The weather – Even on the rainiest and windiest days it’s still 75°F during the day all year round.
  4. The ocean beaches – The tropical Caribbean waters are so clear and warm, you just want to jump in whenever you get the chance. (The Pacific is nice, too.)
  5. The flowers – Everything grows here, so it is no surprise about the abundance of flowers.
  6. Fresh fruit – Like the flowers, fruit grows abundantly. I love getting fresh pineapples for a dollar, giant papayas year round, and avocados and mangos and guava and bananas and…

    This beautiful hummingbird species is common outside our front window.(Photo credit: John C. Avise)

    This beautiful hummingbird species is common outside our window.
    (Photo credit: John C. Avise)

  7. Fun things to do – Even though we spent too much time indoors working on stuff, there was never a shortage of things to do and places to go.
  8. New friends – We met some incredible people, gringos and locals alike, and they have been a great source of warm, friendship, and support.
  9. Our host family – Our home has been very comfortable and conveniently located. The owner and her son made us feel welcome from the time we first met.
  10. Missed opportunities – We are leaving prior to the Flower and Coffee Fair, the Boquete Jazz Festival, and the visit by the Sooke, British Columbia firefighters. I didn’t get to follow-up with a lot of interesting people working to make a difference in a community with lots of needs.

There are more things I may miss about Panama. However, I will be busy discovering new things to enjoy and to share on my next adventure. Won’t you join me?

living

The top 10 things I love about Panama

Looking down the valley at Boquete from the highlands.

1. Waking up to new bird songs I’ve never heard before coming from our verdant arboreal surroundings
2. Facing the daily decision upon getting up in the morning – do I log on or pick up my latest book? (That’s kind of a retirement thing, but we’re in Panama, so it counts.)
3. The fruit vendor in his compact pickup truck, la camioneta, comes by every Tuesday and Thursday. I always buy something, so now he drives by my place slowly to give me a chance to get my shoes on and grab my wallet. He used to say, “Que quieres?” Now he says, “Hola, amigo! Como estás?” Then he holds up samples of what he remembers I have purchased in the past to encourage me to buy. He appreciates that we do the whole thing en español, and I appreciate that he doesn’t laugh at my gringo Spanish… and that his prices are really good!
4. The weather – mornings are clear and clouds move in around noon. We get rain at least every other day, and sometimes we get a lot! (see previous post – So you think you know rain) But it’s still warm enough to wear short sleeves.
5. Old reruns of House, Law and Order, and CSI – I enjoy the English language shows with the Spanish subtitles. Sometimes the interpretations are funny. Example – the actor said, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and the Spanish subtitle said, “Just like Pinocchio.” It’s just a reminder that you can’t translate everything literally, or if you did, it wouldn’t make sense. (Note – NFL Football is televised in English. You don’t get that in South America without satellite TV.)
6. The fish and seafood truck – just like the fruit vendor, only once per week. (see #3)
7. Going in to town – We live four miles from town. We don’t own a car because we don’t need one. The bus or taxi costs 75 cents each way, a little more if they pull right up in front of our gate, which is about 100 yards from the highway. Going to town usually means a shopping trip, and that typically includes fresh baked goods. (Note to self – Don’t let the boxboy pack the baked goods bag with the donuts hidden among the empanadas under the fruit.) There are still a bunch of restaurants we have yet to try, too.
8. Sightseeing – so far we have visited Finca Lérida – a coffee plantation, the Caldera hot springs, Los Cangilones de Gualaca (a beautiful swimming hole on the Rio Estí), Playa Las Obas – a local beach, a rustic sugar cane processing operation near Dolega, and Davíd, the second largest city in Panama, with more restaurants than we’ll ever get a chance to try. (Note – My wife is of Sicilian ancestry, and we just learned a Sicilian gentleman operates a Sicilian style restaurant, La Pianista, just outside of Boquete. We are both eager to try it.)
9. The food – we were shown by our landlord’s lovely wife the proper method for preparing platanos (plantains) and yucca. We are always on the lookout for the perfect empañadas. Lots of people make them. Not many make them well. You need a local connection. We’re working on it.
10. Affordable living – rent, health care, public transportation and dining out are all relatively inexpensive. I save about one-third of my SS check every month.

There are more things to like about Panama, most notably the people. Anywhere you travel, if you treat people with kindness and grace, they reciprocate in kind.
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