Spain, Day 15: Underground in Toledo

Toledo is dramatically sited on a hill overlooking a gorge in a bend of the broad Rio Tajo.

It was important to the Romans, capital of the Visigoths, a glory of both Jewish and Muslim civilizations, the capital of Catholic Monarchs for over a century, and the spiritual center of Spain for the last thousand years.

Alejandro was the perfect guide for today–a professional archaeologist, former staff at Toledo’s Department of Antiquities, and currently pursuing a PhD in art history. “I hear you don’t want the usual tour,” he smiled when meeting me at the train station. “I’ll show you a few things you’ll like, I think.”

Alejandro had the keys–literally–to some amazing archeological sites that are not open to the public. We spent time underground at two different medieval sites, where, to his delight, I gasped in amazed appreciation. I saw a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) carved out of exposed bedrock, and, at the bottom of a steep spiral staircase, a large cistern system. We had all the time in the world for each–in complete privacy. It was a traveler’s dream.

Back above ground, we saw the Monastery of St. John of the Kings. It was commissioned by Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand II to commemorate their victory over Alfonso V of Portugal in 1476.

Originally intended as their pantheon, they were instead buried in Granada Cathedral after conquering that city in 1492. I was moved seeing their tomb there last week. The north side of the enormous building features hundreds of sets of chains, a triumphant symbol of freeing Christian prisoners during the long Granada campaign.

I ended the day at a pair of unusual religious houses. “Santa Maria Synagogue” isn’t a phrase you hear often. The 12th-century Moorish-style building was the center of Toledo’s thriving Jewish community, until pogroms in 1391 and its appropriation by the Catholic Church, who now run it as a museum.

For our last stop, Alejandro took me to a Dominican convent of cloistered nuns. He’d been to preschool there as a child, and the nuns recognized him and greeting us warmly. The place was an island of serenity amid the chattering tourists and visual representations of war and Catholic martyrs. Their bakery smelled good, and looking at us like favored children, they gave us some sweet treats.

After 14 straight days of vacation it was the last bit of stimulation I could handle, and saying goodbye to Alejandro, I headed for the Madrid Airport Hilton.

Thanks for coming along.

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Spain, Day 14: The Past & Future of Seville

I started the day with another longing look at the outside of the cathedral, which was honey-colored in the soft morning light.

Compared to the earlier Romanesque style, Gothic style is known for its verticality. I admired the spires, the columns that seemed to hold up the balconies, and the bollard-like, candle-like pointy things (I’m sure there’s a technical name for them) that seemed an extension of the columns. The gently pointed arched windows couldn’t possibly have been more perfect.

Continuing the day’s tour of Seville’s past, I walked a few minutes to the Plaza de Toros, one of Spain’s most famous bullfighting arenas. I didn’t want to watch a bullfight–they’re not in season right now, and I watched a few on YouTube to prepare for this trip–but I did want to soak in the culture a bit.

In front of the stadium was a lovely statue of the Babe Ruth of bullfighting, and the museum inside was really charming.

Along with documents, tools of the trade, old photos, and so on, it had the costumes of some famous toreadors–featuring exquisite brocades, beadwork, and linings. My guide said that they’re fitted so tightly that they actually restrict the toreadors’ movements “about 20%, so the fighters have to be thin and quick.”

Then it was time to enter the arena, which looked very much like they do in the movies. I tried to imagine 2,000 people jammed in, cheering and screaming and building lifetime memories with their families the way other peoples do at their own favorite sporting event. As I surveyed the scene from stone seat 14 in row B, I realized the place was a perfect replica of the various Roman and Greek coliseums I’d seen around the world.

It was hot and I was tired, but it was only early afternoon, and my very enthusiastic guide had been talking about “seeing the mushrooms” since the minute I met her two days ago, so we bundled into a taxi to see something or other. It turned out to be unique and quite pleasant.

It looks like a large sculpture with a few thousand metal panels, but it’s apparently the largest wooden sculpture in Europe. It undulates in unexpected ways above Seville’s busiest downtown neighborhood, sort of like New York’s Highline if it were designed by Barcelona’s Gaudi. We walked along its meandering, gently sloping paths, and at each turn were rewarded with a different view of Seville, which stretched for miles into the distance.

From street level it does look like a half-dozen of the world’s largest mushrooms tangled up with each other. It was quite controversial when built eight years ago–people complained that it was too expensive, disrupted the neighborhood, and didn’t fit into Seville’s traditional architecture or skyline.

“Just like people once said about the the Eiffel Tower,” I mused out loud. While I’m not a fan of modern architecture (give me Gothic or neo-Classical any day), I suppose that any innovative building anywhere will at first be damned as not fitting in. The good ones, I guess, do fit in to the future–we just don’t know it at the time.

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Spain, Day 13: Back to When the Earth Was Young

Silver, copper, iron, lead…for a complete change of pace, today I drove about 90 minutes into the mountains west of Seville and spent a wonderful day at the Rio Tinto mines.

Worked by the Phoenicians, Romans, and others as far back as 3000BCE, these are the world’s oldest mines that are still operating. Its scale is almost unimaginable–I still can’t really believe what I saw.

A world-class museum explained the evolution of the mines over time, and displayed actual mining equipment from 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. As usual, the Romans used simple geometric principles to create civil engineering projects of enormous complexity and usefulness (remember the 10-mile-long Roman aqueduct that brought water into Segovia?).

The development of modern tools such as steam power, the Bessemer furnace, and chemical isotopes all built upon the original Roman designs, expanding the size, depth, and output of the mines.

The gigantic pit is big enough to hold all of San Francisco, and miles deep. It features beautiful rock formations of every imaginable color. And of course various outcroppings are tilted at stark angles due to tectonic shifts millions of years ago.

I saw both shaft mines and open pit mines, and actually entered one of the shorter shaft mines, hard hat, damp walls, and all.

During Victorian times, the mines were the site of worker-owner-state violence, much as happened in America at about the same time.

Now owned by an international consortium, the latest find here is cobalt–a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, up to now found mainly in the dreadfully unstable Democratic Republic of Congo. This latest iteration of the ancient mines will not be the last, as the company has already filed plans to expand the site, adding new roads connecting it to a new city for the expected additional workers.

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Spain, Day 12: Seville—Where a Pope Wept

The tomb of Christopher Columbus, carried aloft by four full-size bronze knights. The cape worn by King Charles when he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The 50-foot high gilded altarpiece so beautiful it made Pope John Paul II weep when he visited. Just a few of the highlights I saw in Seville’s massive medieval Cathedral.

It’s the largest gothic cathedral in the world, of monumental scale and delicately balanced architecture. The marble floor, the vaulted ceilings, the dozens of gigantic, rounded octagonal columns connecting the two all work together to create a building that feels unshakably permanent–and yet also accessible, available on which to project whatever feelings a visitor might have.

This vibrant building contains some of the world’s greatest paintings. I’m afraid a lot of its beauty is simply lost on me, as Renaissance painting is simply not my vocabulary. But everyone understands theft, and I enjoyed seeing the 12-foot tall Vision de San Antonio, a 1656 Murillo which was cut up and stolen from the cathedral in 1874. It was later recovered, restored, and here it is.

I hugged a column one more time, shook my head at Columbus’ ultimate rehabilitation in the Spanish historiography, and moved on.

The last stop of the day was the Archives of the Exploration of the Indies. The documents I saw include the first crude dictionary of Spanish-Indian language, and the actual 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the New World’s soon-to-be colonial possessions between Spain and Portugal along a meridian off the west coast of Africa.

And that, children, is why Brazilians speaks Portuguese, not Spanish, to this very day.

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Day 11, Spain: Granada: Before and After the Conquest

Grenada was conquered in 1942, and the victorious northern kingdoms wasted no time in Christianizing the world-famous city. Fortunately they didn’t simply blow everything up.

As usual in Spain, the story starts earlier. To see it for myself, I spent the day at the Alhambra, with the same spectacular guide I had yesterday: an international museum consultant, fluent in 5 languages, a lover of both Jewish and Muslim culture.

The Alhambra was built as a fort and royal residence in 1237. Over one-and-a-half centuries, successive Islamic rulers added increasingly lavish rooms, gardens, and decorations. The result is an enormous, magnificent example of medieval architecture.

And then, conquest.

Christian royalty wanted to spend time there, so they built their own enormous palace, an early-Hapsburg behemoth that would look right at home in today’s Vienna, Prague, Budapest, or Zagreb.

But it sure doesn’t fit here, among medieval Islamic gems. Whereas the graceful medieval Muslim buildings seem to rise organically from the earth, the huge 16th-century neo-classical blocks of stone look so heavy I imagined they might just sink into the ground.

The contrast made my head spin. The antidote was one of the kids I saw dressed in flamenco’s finest. She felt shy about having her photo taken, but once she agreed, she posed like a pro.

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Spain, Day 10: Granada, Where the World Changed Forever in 1492

1492 is the year that changed the world, and it happened right here in Granada. We could start with this 50-foot high statue of Columbus asking Isabella yet again to sponsor his ridiculous adventure. It’s right downtown, cars whizzing about while pedestrians talk on their i-phones.

But Columbus’s voyage didn’t happen in the simple vacuum that most Americans learn about. Before that, Isabella and Ferdinand, married and in control of much of Christian northern Spain, conquered Granada, the last Muslim holdout. And rather than see his beloved city destroyed after an 8-month siege, the Emir handed the city keys to the Christian army.

He negotiated for tolerance for Muslims, but the Christians soon broke their promise, and the expulsion of Muslims began, along with the Jews.

With their power base secured, political problem resolved, and an end to the military drain on the royal finances, Spain could now imagine and fund the equivalent of NASA’s moon-landing. A trip to the Indies, Chris? Sure! Christianize the unique patrimony of Grenada’s Moorish architecture? Sure! Here’s one of those Christianized buildings, with the F and Y shields above the columns, and portrayal of Mary with Isabella’s face. The message: religion and politics are now one.

In the Chapel of the Catholic Monarchs, I saw the couple’s enormous sarcophagus, powerfully yet delicately carved in marble portraying dozens of Christendom’s greatest hits. Downstairs were their actual tombs, as simple as a peasant’s.

The conquest of Granada ended Moorish political power in Iberia. The New World conquests of the Americas sent mountains of gold and silver to Spain. Together, these positioned Spain to be a key player in resisting the Reformation–sometimes brutally, as with the Inquisition, and sometimes creatively, as in developing institutions like the Rosary and the Jesuits, which allowed Catholics a more participatory role in their own would-be salvation.

As the day wound down, I chanced into the church of a cloistered convent, where i watched nuns, faceless and swathed in white, chant (a bit off-key, I thought). They claim to be “slaves of God” (their words, not mine). According to Romans 1:1, everyone is a slave to some spiritual power–to sin or to God. Take your pick.

I’ll take this world, thanks.

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Spain, Day 9: Last Day at the Center of the Universe

The day started with a lavish breakfast (“the most important meal of the day!”) at my lavish hotel, a medieval convent refashioned as the home of a rich medieval Cordoban.

I spent the morning walking the old Jewish quarter, a dense warren of narrow cobblestone lanes featuring artisan shops, cafes, and overhead wrought-iron balconies ablaze with flowers. I passed statues of medieval notables, both Jewish and Muslim.

Of great interest was the Jewish Interpretive Center, which featured an exhibit on the Inquisition, complete with original documents summoning various accuseds. By happenstance I caught a short vocal performance of songs in Ladino, the language of Spanish Jewish exiles that they carried to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and elsewhere. The haunting melodies and rhythms were somehow both familiar and exotic.

The highlight of the morning was time in the small synagogue built in 1315–testament to a Jewish community here as Christians from northern Spain were colonizing (“re-conquering”) southern Muslim cities. Muslim craftsmen had executed a Jewish building with the best of Islamic design–delicate stucco latticework, scalloped arches, hypnotic geometric patterns, and calligraphy around the perimeter.

After lunch I spent the afternoon touring the Alcazar, palace of medieval Emirs and Caliphs. In addition to the buildings and gardens, the complex displayed recent excavations of enormous amounts of Roman mosaics. I also saw the room in which Isabel & Ferdinand first received that wild-eyed sailor, Christopher Columbus.

In less than a day I had seen artifacts from four civilizations, all of whom had thrived in this special city at various times–three of them simultaneously.

I ended the evening at a performance of flamenco–music and dance developed by Gypsy/Roma communities. The singers, dancers, and guitarist created romantic works of great precision and passion. The unexpected burst of rain that soaked me as I walked back to my hotel turned the usually-bustling city into a quiet sentry of melancholy gray.

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Spain, Day 8: World History in the Cordoba Mezquita

Three days at the sea is enough for me, so it was a car ride to Valencia, then two trains to Cordoba in southern Spain–medieval Andalusia (Al Andalus in Arabic).

How ancient is Cordoba? I started the day looking at the spectacular bridge the Romans built over the Guadalquiver River. It carried cars as recently as a few decades ago, when the city wisely restricted it to pedestrians only.

After the Romans left (“Brutus, get back to Rome ASAP, we have serious problems on the northern frontier”), the Visigoths moved in, establishing a Christian kingdom. After a few centuries internal divisions left them vulnerable to a fierce new group, as Muslims from North Africa swiftly captured the area in the late 7th century.

By the 8th and 9th centuries Cordoba was so wealthy, so central in the world’s consciousness, that the Rahman dynasty began to build (and continually enlarge) the largest mosque on the continent. How large? St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the world’s largest cathedral. You could fit it inside Cordoba’s Mezquita (mosque)–twice.

I spent a spectacular morning there with a doctoral student in art history. Laura read the building to me like a 1200-year-old book. I saw innovative engineering feats, expressed in visually ravishing architecture. A thousand stone and marble columns.

Alternating red and white symmetrical stone arches as far as the eye could see, creating a hypnotic effect. Thousands of delicate stone details, and a ravishing mihrab made of gold mosaics imported from Byzantium–along with artisans to install the three thousand pounds of gold tile.

This building is one of the highlights of my life’s travel experiences.

It being a Muslim sanctuary, not an animal or human is depicted anywhere. Just perfect symmetry and harmony of space and geometry.

And then the Christians conquered the city in 1236.

And they built a huge gothic church inside the mosque. And suddenly, there were humans depicted everywhere. Suffering images of dying Jesus and tortured saints.

The Christian conquerors didn’t destroy the magnificent mosque, which they could have. In a bizarre irony, once they put a church inside, the building became a sacred place, protected from destruction forever. So we still have the glorious medieval Mezquita.

We just have to pay for it by tolerating Jesus’ suffering.

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Spain, Days 5, 6, & 7: By The Beautiful Sea

My dear departed friend Jack Morin used to say that my vacations sounded exhausting to him. So for the next three days I’ll be at the beach relaxing.

I’m in Denia, south of Valencia. And although everything here is all palm trees and cerveza and miles of sandy shoreline, it’s gray and a bit chilly. Nevertheless, I’m in a lovely house a 3-minute walk from the sea. There are a few restaurants and a market a half-mile away, so I’m all set for meals.

Alternating with articles about Spanish culture, I’m reading a wonderful history book called The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat (I lecture in Budapest next month). To keep the kings and conquests and various popes straight, this isn’t a book to read a few pages here and there, so I’m glad to have plenty of time to hunker down with it.

But most of all, I have the sea. The eternal Mediterranean, arguably the most important body of water in human history. Because of its relatively weak currents and the lack of trade winds, it was (and is) just as easy to sail east or west on it. But the Mediterranean has more volatile weather than an ocean, so the wind and waves can be treacherous. So since antiquity, sailors have gone on short trips in the winter, saving long trips for May through October. That has shaped human commerce, immigration, and warfare, and thus human history itself.

Three days without touring also gives me a chance to reflect on the glorious times I’ve had this past week in Avila, Segovia, and neighboring towns. Here one simply can’t avoid the constantly acknowledged ebb and flow of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures (along with Roma, South American, and Middle Eastern).

Spain is a true melting pot. The bizarre au courant American critique of “cultural appropriation” would be laughed at here. Every Spaniard now knows such heretofore exotica as flamenco, courtyard fountains, merino wool, tomatoes, Holy Week processions, painted Cordovan leather, and the guitar–not to mention the crucial Arabic imports of olive trees and the number zero. No one cares about their origin, the original cultures feel no ownership or jealousy about them, and there are no “progressive” scolds trying to make others feel guilty about enjoying them.

Spain is no paradise. But you can listen to a passionate Roma (“gypsy”) guitar and eat the sheep’s cheese invented a thousand years ago without wondering whose feelings are being hurt.

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Spain, Day 4: Fast Train to the Seaside

After much breath-taking architectural sightseeing, it’s time to leave the historic heart of the emerging Spanish nation, the seat of Isabel and hubby’s extraordinary power.

So–Atlantic or Mediterranean? Cake or ice cream? I headed east for the ice cream–the eastern edge of Spain, and the western edge of the Mediterranean.

One of Spain’s prides is their train system, a rapid network that goes to every corner of the country. Imagine being able to visit the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa wine country, and walk the beaches of San Diego–all without setting foot in an airport. And on some routes, going 160 miles per hour.

Changing trains in Madrid (una gran estación!), I continued toward the port city of Valencia (oranges, anyone? They were brought here by the Muslims 1200 years ago). We climbed up and over the mountains of Aragon, the kingdom Ferdinand brought to his world-changing marriage to Isabella. Their daughter Catherine of Aragon would eventually marry England’s future Henry VIII–who soon pushed her aside for Anne Boleyn. When neither Catherine nor the Pope would authorize a divorce, Henry simply founded his own Church of England.

In Valencia I was picked up by a car service, and drove south along the coast to the beach town of Denia. And here I’ll be for the next three days–relaxing, walking on the sand, and reading a wonderful book (no spoiler alert here). The days of knights and political marriages will have to wait a bit.

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Spain, Day 3: Avila

Nine hundred, eight hundred, seven hundred years ago the northern third of Spain was Christian. The southern third was Muslim. In between is a vast plain that, during centuries of back-and-forth battling, was no-man’s-land.

And that’s where I’ve been spending my first week in Spain.

As the tide turned in favor of the Christian north, nobles and monarchs paid mountain people on both sides of the Pyrenees to settle no-man’s-land and help push the Reconquista southward. The historic town of Avila was repopulated (after settlement and abandonment by the Celts, Romans, and Visigoths) in just that way.

To get there we drove an hour through herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and fields of barley. On a gray, windswept day, the gigantic gothic Cathedral was stunning in its scale. Each side of the soaring square pillars was as big as my outstretched arms. The walls were made of an unusual marble-like “blood limestone,” streaked with red that looked painted on.

Even more beautiful was the soaring 12th-century Basilica of St. Vincent, which contains some of the most important Romanesque art in Spain. The Cenotaph of the martyrs (gotta have martyrs if you want the pilgrimage trade) was so delicately carved and painted you’d swear (oops) it was wood.

But as Elvis is to Graceland, St Teresa is to Avila. The Lonely Planet Guide calls her “the most important woman in Christianity, after Mary.” Most of her story is the usual: she gets a vision in late adolescence, joins a convent (Carmelite), lives an exemplary life. But late in life she has another vision—her Sisters’ lifestyle has been a bit too, well, cushy, and has to change.

In fact, old lady Teresa decides the entire Carmelite order has to shape up and get back to basics. She hits the road and preaches simplicity, founding convents across 16th-century Spain. The original Carmelites (and their donors) are unhappy, but she doesn’t care. Simple people love her vision, and soon after she dies, she becomes a saint. The Discalced Carmelite nuns have been with us ever since.

Her images grace the Basilica everywhere. And if you go to the little museum nearby and catch it when it’s open (hours, apparently, random), you get the pleasure of looking at…her actual, authenticated left ring finger. I admit it didn’t quite inspire me spiritually, but I was definitely in the minority on that one.

Finally, the medieval walls encircling Avila were as spectacular as advertised. The view from afar was ethereal, and the experience of walking on top of them was majestic. If anything could inspire me spiritually, it was seeing the upper exteriors of the Gothic monuments up close. Way better than a 500-year-old bony finger.

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Spain, Day 2: Queen Isabella’s Life & Death

Isabella the Catholic (yes, that Isabella) was born in 1451. She was the first to be called Queen of Spain, and packed a huge life into her 53 years—from the romantic to the innovative to the world-changing to the incredibly cruel and short-sighted. Today I saw many of her life’s highlights.

The younger half-sister of Henry IV of Castile, she spent her youth and adolescence in Segovia (just down the street from my convent-hotel). Creatively preventing a number of proposed political marriages, she eloped at age 18 to marry her second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon. Today I spent the day in Valladolid, touring the austere and overwhelming Cathedral where they married in 1469.

Once married, they set out to unify the various kingdoms around them. This involved politics, war, and cleaning up the legal and social mess her royal brother had left her. Of course they had to build a castle to project their power and headquarter their army.

1492 was an extraordinary year for her and Ferdinand: After a protracted war with Portugal, she sent Columbus to America so Spain could be a competitive presence in the Atlantic.

That same year she completed the Reconquista by conquering the last Muslim city in Spain, Grenada. In religious triumph, she then threw the hundreds of thousands of Jews out of Spain, starting the Inquisition. Muslims and gypsies were targets as well.

In the town of Medina del Campo, I saw a statue commemorating the 500th anniversary of her death, which took place in 1504.

On the other side of the square, I saw the house where she died—complete with revisionist text about what a jewel of a ruler she had been.

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Spain, Day 1: Segovia

My trip to Spain starts in Segovia, home to Queen Isabella of Castile before she married Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, the start of consolidating the Spanish nation. I’m staying at a renovated hilltop convent, with thick walls and wonderful food. I spent the day touring the town with an excellent guide.

In the great conflict over the Western Mediterranean, Rome and Carthage fought several battles. Spain was a great prize, which Rome finally won in 19 BCE. As it did everywhere, Rome built roads, temples –and aqueducts.

Now a world-heritage town in central Spain, Segovia was a military outpost–so it needed a reliable water supply. I saw the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct, STILL bringing drinking water from the hills 15 miles away into Segovia. A half-mile long and 90 feet high, it’s made of 28,000 blocks of granite–without an ounce of mortar. It runs right through the town, a stone’s throw (gasp!) from the Tourist Office and McDonald’s.

When Rome eventually weakened and needed defending, it relocated its troops in Spain closer to home. Into the vacuum moved the Visigoths, who converted to Christianity. Centuries of Muslim rule came and went, and Christianity stayed. And so I saw more churches today than you could shake a cross at.

I loved the Iglesia Vera Cruz, built in the 13th century by the Knights Hospitalers, guardians of Crusading pilgrims (and recipients of much Crusaders’ cash). It’s a simple-looking 12-sided building outside the town walls. In contrast to later art, the carved figures around the doorway do look quite medieval.

In 1525, Isabella’s successor King Carlos started an enormous Gothic cathedral. Since it took 200 years to complete, it’s a mix of styles. Filled with hundreds of paintings depicting you-can-guess-who and his mom, its huge organ stands out with its simple lines and single color–gold, as in dozens of pounds of gold leaf. Oh, to hear it play just a single note…(sigh).

A walk through the old Jewish quarter reminded me of the convert-or-leave edict of 1492, when tens of thousands of Jews left. Those who stayed and converted were suspect, and many were then subject to the horrors of the Inquisition, centered right here in Segovia. The town converted the main synagogue into the Church of Corpus Christi. Its most interesting feature is a huge 120-year-old painting depicting the legend of Segovia’s Jews poisoning the sacramental Host.

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Spain: 2,500 Years on a Crossroads

Spain links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and Europe with Africa. It was inhabited for tens of thousands of years before the Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, and Visigoths each took a turn occupying the harsh mountains, fertile valleys, and valuable ports.

Then the newly-powerful Islamic army came up from Africa and transformed it again. 800 years after that, Ferdinand and Isabella funded Columbus and threw the Jews out of Catholic Spain. The Habsburgs, Cervantes, Goya, and the Spanish Civil War–practice for WWII–followed.

Five hundred years after that, on May 13, I’m going to Spain for two weeks.

As usual, I’ll go to historical monuments, out-of-the-way cobblestoned streets, and ancient battlegrounds. I’ll interview some locals and take some grand photos.

Join me! Enter your email address under my face at the above right, and you’ll get pinged every time I post between May 13-30. ¡Excelente!

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Last Day in Malaysia

I reluctantly left the grand E & O hotel and spent my last two days in Penang at the Bayview Beach Resort at Batu Ferringhi beach. Both the hotel and the beach were a letdown.

But let’s start with the lemonade, not the lemons.

Whereas the E & O was a luxury destination for international travelers, the Bayview was filled with local families, enjoying a school holiday week. And so I had a non-stop view of local culture, a chance to observe bodies at rest and at play.

A sign at the pool brought me up short. The dress code was complex. Bikinis and “Muslim swimwear,” yes. “Traditional clothing” and “non-swim headscarf,” no.

And indeed, there were a few Caucasian women in bikinis, whom nobody hassled. There were burkinis everywhere, polyester Muslim garb which covered everything except a woman’s face, hands, and feet. The Chinese and Indian women mostly wore shorts and t-shirts (long-sleeved for the Chinese, short-sleeved for the Indians); a few wore leggings, while some twenty-somethings wore Western-style one-piece swimsuits. The Chinese and Indian men either wore t-shirts or were bare-chested.

As I’ve noted before, Malaysia’s three distinct ethnic groups don’t mix in any meaningful ways. Their national legislature is even apportioned by race. And so one could observe contrasting genetics between the Chinese, Indian, and Malay people.

I won’t say this is true around the world, but when comparing the three groups in Malaysia:
~ Indians have broader feet. The men have much bigger calves;
~ A huge percentage of Chinese wear glasses;
~ Malay and Chinese women have much smaller breasts;
~ None of the three groups has people with well-developed shoulders.

And in the social realm:
~ None of the groups display much physical affection in public, except toward children;
~ The Chinese shuffle. The Indians walk straight ahead. The Malays walk slowly;
~ Over two days, observing some 300 people, I didn’t see a single Malay actually swim.
~ In all three groups, adults rarely run. Adults typically call to others (whether a child or adult) rather than walk over to them to speak.

Walking on the coarse sand of the narrow beach, I encountered four young Malaysian women gabbing and having a picnic. I took off my sunglasses and walked toward them.

They were celebrating one of their birthdays. They were all 23, friendly and full of energy. I asked to take their photos, for which they happily posed. And they took mine, which they thought was hilarious. I asked about their hijabs, which they discussed quite openly. They had each started wearing one at their mother’s instruction, between the ages of 7-9.

I asked them about their hair hidden underneath, which each reported was longer than shoulder-length. “So a big surprise for your husband,” I said. They agreed. “And maybe other surprises,” I gently said, tactfully gesturing to their baggy outfits. “Yes,” they giggled. “Surprise is good, that’s the wisdom of our faith,” said one. “Unless it’s unhappy surprise,” I responded gently.

These young women were bouncy and pleasant, but I couldn’t shake the image of them on the day they were first wrapped in a hijab. It’s a proud day for some kids, a confusing day for others. In my Western mind’s eye, it’s also the last day that their shoulders or shins will ever feel the sun’s caress. Some will feel honored by the responsibility that men don’t have. Others will feel burdened. None will experience a choice.

That’s what I wish for all people: the caress of choice.

Thank you, reader, for travelling with me.

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Malaysia, Day 5

Religion is everywhere in Malaysia. And that means ethnicity, and that means politics.

When you saw someone on the street in Boston 200 years ago, you immediately knew most important things about them, based on their clothes and grooming: their income, marital status, occupation, religion. Today, you can walk that same Boston street and know almost nothing about passersby.

Not so here. For starters, local Muslim women cover some or all of their bodies and hair. If they’re seen on the street with adult males, they’re typically husbands or relatives. So men walking with Muslim women can be identified as Muslim as well. The kind and amount of gold jewelry worn denotes marital and social status.

Chinese and Indian Malaysians have their own distinct dress, food, music, religion, and other customs. After being here just a few days, I instinctively began to see people in these categories, which today hit me quite strongly. It’s as if we’d walk along Broadway or El Camino and see a woman wearing a three-foot large cross. Or a man with a sign around his neck saying he comes from Taiwan, NOT mainland China. You and I might see that and shrug, surprised but uncaring. But soon, “people” and “ethnically categorized people” would be the same thing. And that’s how it is here.

Of course, we’re not category-free in America. Most of us sort others by race, not to mention physical attractiveness, ableness, and gender. But while intermarriage across any domain in the U.S. is still unusual, there are many places where Americans of various communities mix.

Perhaps more to the point, Westerners don’t announce their social categories nearly as immediately as Asians do. You may not know an acquaintance’s income, and hesitate to ask their religion or ethnic background. If you meet someone of indeterminate race, you wouldn’t ask them.

Around the world, we see how easily ethnic tension can explode overnight. Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s. The Balkans in the 1990s (and just last week in Kosovo). Ethiopia and Eritrea today. Burmese and Rohingya today. Turks and Kurds today.

From all appearances, Malaysia manages its multi-ethnic society. It does so in a way that’s unfamiliar to modern Americans—by institutionalizing difference and discrimination, rather than officially encouraging assimilation. For example, converting to Islam carries political, social, and financial advantages in Malaysia. How many people do it because of theological, rather than practical reasons? Not many I imagine. No one knows, of course.

In therapy, I focus on the shared values and traits of couples in conflict, while they typically focus on differences. And people in therapy tend to categorize themselves, telling me what kind of person they are instead of inviting me get to know them.

Modern societies wrestle with how to honor individual traits and idiosyncratic culture while finding things to bind people together. Art can be a great binder–although periodically politicians try to politicize it, from Alexander the Great to Stalin to Dan Quayle (remember Murphy Brown?). Sports can be a great binder–people can fiercely debate Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James and still be friends (although fans at international soccer games can great pretty nasty). Right about now, it would be nice if love of the planet, and concern for its future, was humanity’s binding agent.

In Malaysia, at least we all agree that it’s hot. And soccer is good. And children are a gift. Well, some children.

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Malaysia, Day 4

My website is censored in Malaysia. You can’t even go to my shopping cart and buy a webinar on doing better intake sessions.

Having thought it over, I sincerely say, “Fuck the Malaysian government.”

This isn’t the first time I couldn’t access my own website while travelling (see Myanmar, China). Heck, there are places in the U.S. where I can’t access my own website (University of Arkansas, FedEx/Kinkos). Fuck them, too.

I don’t take it personally, as my website isn’t the only one. Anything having to do with sex—education, porn, health, news—is considered dangerous for the 33 million people of Malaysia.

Imagine deliberately imposing ignorance—of any kind—on an entire population. Regimes that do so may be powerful, but they aren’t strong—they’re afraid. They deserve to fall. Russians should know what their army is doing in Ukraine. Malaysians should know that some people have sex without being married, and don’t die.

American teens should know there’s a safe, cheap vaccine that can help prevent HPV (which can cause sterility). And that teens pledging abstinence-until-marriage are more likely to get pregnant before they marry. And that watching porn doesn’t undermine your erections, but that trying to have sex like a porn star does.

In Malaysia, it’s not only sexual topics that are censored. Like Singapore, Malaysia is an authoritarian parliamentary system. The government decides what’s moral and ethical, and enshrines its opinions in law. This is different than, say, setting highway speed limits or criminalizing murder. In those latter instances, science confirms certain harms, which are tangible, and which can be certifiably limited. Exposure to my website? Well, the data’s still coming in.

The connection between censoring my website, legally defining immorality, and jailing people for criticizing the government is simple and direct. For as Lenny Bruce once said after being arrested for on-stage “profanity,” “If you can’t say fuck, you can’t say fuck the government.”

So fuck you, Malaysia, for imagining my voice is so dangerous that you have to hide it from your own people. And bless every country, including America, in which you can say fuck the government.

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Malaysia, Day 3

Have I mentioned how hot and humid it is here? I’ve a new appreciation for the word “enervated.” Even the enormous coconut trees seem to sway languidly, almost reluctantly.

So I strolled, equally languidly, through Georgetown today. I basically took in the colors and sounds–no great insights today, I’m afraid. It’s just too hot. But walking around and unabashedly pointing my camera everywhere, people did smile at me. And no one turned down my request of “photo, please?”

I heard a gaggle of young people fussing around one corner, and found a group of friends adjusting each others’ graduation robes. Seems that the big ceremony was tonight, and they wanted to rehearse–and take jillions of photos, of course. They were all graduating in “sports science,” and all had professional aspirations. No, none of their parents had gone to university. The American dream, Malaysia-style.

Of course, there’s the other end of the economic spectrum here. Even elegant restaurants need unskilled restaurant labor, and these sidewalk shops were hardly elegant. A guy scrubbing out cooking pots in an alleyway didn’t stop when he saw me, but nodded just enough to let me know I could take his photo.

We hear a lot about the coming demographic collapse in China, which is also true in Malaysia. But while births to Malays (Muslims) are declining, the norm is still three kids, even among the poor. Six kids per woman? Not so much anymore.

Well, that’s enough tropical sweating for one day. Let me cool off at the old E & O and we’ll see what (in)sights tomorrow brings.

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Malaysia, Day 2

Penang is a thumb-shaped island off the northwest coast of Malaysia. In 1786 the British East India Company founded a port there on the budding commercial shipping lane between India and China. Structured as a tariff-free port, it quickly became a major center for exporting spices to the West.

That shipping lane, the Strait of Malacca, is today the busiest in the world, carrying 25% of the world’s traded goods–including most of China’s oil. At its narrowest, the Strait is less than 2 miles wide. This makes Penang–and its competitor Singapore–key players in the world economy.

And I’m spending every day this week looking through swaying palm trees at its cloudy waters. As a modern deep-water port, mammoth cruise ships dock here alongside giant container ships and the occasional military vessel. I saw all three just yesterday.

Mr. Wong drove us to Penang’s main city, Georgetown (named after King George III, of the American Revolution), where we walked around. He was especially proud of Harmony Street, on which you can find a 19th-century Anglican church, Chinese temples, and Muslim and Hindu shrines all within a few blocks. I asked how, in a world riven by ethnic and racial conflict, Malaysia had achieved the accord he talked of so often. “Strong leader,” he replied. “And everybody wants peace so they can do business,” he added.

The Chinese mostly arrived from southern cities like Guanzhou and Fuzhou. “Their food’s not so spicy,” I said, to which Mr. Wong nodded approvingly (and we agreed that Indian food could be “very, very hot–too hot”). When a new Chinese family arrived here in the early 19th century, that would set up a benevolent association for their clansmen, centered on a temple. These temples dot Georgetown, and we saw them in use by everyday people.

Across the globe, the most modern of Chinese still believe in family gods, propitious days, and lucky numbers. In just six weeks, Chinese New Year will once again witness the largest human migration in history. A stick of incense–made here and burned here, or in South Korea, San Francisco or Shanghai–is part of the millenium-old trade network that put this very spot under my feet on the global map.

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Malaysia, Day 1

Weatherwise, it’s always Groundhog Day in Malaysia—95 degrees, 95% humidity. Gin & tonic anyone?

Malaysia occupies the southern half of a long narrow strip of land that points into the crescent bowl of Indonesia’s many islands. The northern half of the peninsula belongs to Thailand; the southernmost tip is Singapore. It’s 2/3 the size of California, with 2/3 the population.

Seeing my name on a sign when arriving at an international airport seems the height of glamor to me, and Mr. Wong did not disappoint. Chatting happily for 45 minutes, he drove me from the Penang airport to the E & O (Eastern & Oriental) Hotel. Built in 1885, this will be home for 5 days, complete with ceiling fans, sea-facing balconies, high tea, and “yes, no problem” as the answer to every question.

The island of Penang has over 600,000 people: 2/3 ethnic Malay, 1/4 Chinese, the rest primarily Indian. The Malays are primarily Muslim, the Chinese a mix of Buddhist, Tao, and various family religions, while the Indians are split between Hindu and Muslim. I mention this because everything in Malaysia starts with ethnicity. It’s in their Constitution, it’s in their history, and it’s in their, well, blood.
But more on that later.

From the second I arrived, the E & O lived up to its reputation. I had booked a lovely suite, and they upgraded me on top of that, so I stayed in a place that had actually hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana (“We had to make some special plans for them,” the concierge confided). The place had also hosted Noel Coward, Rita Hayworth, Sun Yat-Sen, Rudyard Kipling, and Charlie Chaplin. Good company with whom to relax.

Now for a bath, enjoying the breeze from the enormous window open to the world’s busiest shipping chokepoint. More on that tomorrow, I daresay.

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