May 31, 2011

Spain Vignettes: La leyenda del tiempo

May 4, 2011. Granada.

We reached Granada in the morning, after an uncomfortable overnight train journey. It was quite chilly. We eat croissants, donuts and gulp down coffee at the cafe inside the station. My journal tells us the best way to get to the hostel is by bus. I ask the information centre for directions to the bus stand. ‘Derecha’ he says, at the intersection a few blocks from the train station. It was easy enough to find. The bus stop had an electronic information board letting us know when the next bus would arrive and which direction the bus would be traveling in, quite a novel experience, at least for Neeto and me.

At Oasis Backpackers, we were told we would have to wait until noon to check in to our rooms, about two hours away. We had breakfast, and while Attu and Neeto played games on Neeto’s iPhone, I checked my email. Seven minutes to 11, a guy at one of the computers turns around and asks if we are interested in joining his walking tour. Attu and I were tempted to go, but we weren’t sure if we would be ready at such short notice. The guide said he would wait a few minutes for us. Neeto came by, and said we should try to go. We all jumped and tried to get ready. The less said about my appearance that morning, the better.

On to more important things. We started off with a short history lesson. Our tour guide’s name is Aric. He makes us introduce ourselves, tells us that the stereotype of Spain that we have – olive skin and dark eyes, is actually not true. Spaniards have angular faces, with fair hair and light eyes. The Arabs came to Spain and ruled until the 14th century, when Ferdinand and Isabel, though cousins, decided to get married and combine forces. I think they belonged to the Castile and Leon provinces. The combined might let them take on the Arab rulers, and Granada was the last Arab-ruled place to fall. Then Ferdinand and Isabel saw how beautiful and majestic the construction of Alhambra was, and moved in there. Before the Arabs, the Visigoths ruled.

Aric said the Arabs were not a majority, and yet they were able to rule for a long time because they treated their people well, and their habits kept them disease-free. Habits and customs, like common baths, ensured everyone could live with good hygiene while the rest of Europe fell to epidemics like the plague. The common baths were called Hammams. The streets are narrow in Granada, with doorways kept small. Not because the Muslims were short, but to kill intruding armies because short doorways and narrow streets are hard to storm through. The Albayzin, is a world heritage site, and any new construction in this area must look like the old. There are very few power lines that run through this area. It is as if time has stood still.

Anyway, after the Arab rule ended, their new Christian monarchs were not so tolerant and issued a decree that everyone had to surrender their money and convert to Christianity if they liked to keep their heads on their shoulders. So the Jews and Arabs were assimilated into Spanish society. And with the new found Arab-wealth, Ferdinand and Isabel financed a great many expeditions, including those of a certain Christopher Columbus. Aric said the Arabs took upon Christian symbols as their last names (Cruz, Banderas etc), while Jews took upon last names like Flores. He says it is easy to tell who descended from Arabs, from their last names and of course, skin tone.

We go through some parts of Albayzin, including an ancient Hammam, which consists of three sections: a sauna, a water pool to take a bath followed by a massage area so one can get scrubbed down. There are several new Hammams which are modeled just like the ancient ones so you can get the experience, the only difference being that the new ones are unisex.

“We are walking through the Jewish area of old, how can you tell?” asks Aric.
“The Star of David” I say, pointing to the ground, where black stones make a star against a background of white.

The sun has come out by now, and we can tell its going to be a very warm day. We walk to the University of Granada, from where Aric points out the Alhambra nestled in the mountain across. He says the Sierra Nevada has many caves, where gypsies used to live before. Now, hippies live there. Apparently the Arabs brought the art of farming and other inventions to the European world. They brought their engineering skills and built aqua-ducts bringing fresh water from the Sierra Nevada to the city of Granada. He talks about how they invented the number zero.

Hearing that, Philip, from the UK, sitting next to me, turns and asks quietly, “didn’t Indians invent zero?”

“Yes” I whisper back, but don’t correct Aric, who then adds that the Arabs invented the art of surgery.

Upon which, Neeto, Attu and I look at each other, thinking “well that’s not true either”.

What is true is that the Arabs assimilated a lot of knowledge in the regions they conquered and spread their knowledge to Europe.

Aric also talks about the Romani people having split from India around the 15th century and traveled to Europe through Russia and arriving in Spain, while the Gitanos arrived a few centuries earlier, having traveled through the Arab lands, through Morocco and reaching Andalucia.

While we walk to the aqua-duct that we were going to see next, we ask each other, well, do you remember who invented surgery? We knew Aryabhatta was known for astronomy, but we simply couldn’t remember who was responsible for having invented surgical techniques.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves” we sheepishly tell each other.

The answer, as it turns out, is Sushrutha.

As we walk with the group, Sylvie, an Australian, says she was going through a mid-life crisis, and had been traveling for about 8 months. She had a few more to go, and then she would head back home and try to figure out what she would do. Her concern about securing a job and her finances seemed apparent, even as she tried to shrug it off. We later find out she started drinking at lunch and just wouldn’t stop drinking through the day.

Aric, was an engineer from Australia. He tells me he has been in Granada roughly six months, and was planning on staying a few more before he headed to London. He was a musician, a guitarist, now taking lessons in flamenco. He says he has made a few contacts and is hopeful of making it work in London.

I am wistful by this point. Would I ever have the courage to just leave everything and go around the world traveling?

As I later describe to my friends in Australia that I met a lot of Australians at almost every city in Spain, they confirm that “Australians live to travel.”

It’s a cultural thing, I am sure. We are driven by financial security.

In history books, you always hear that Nalanda University, the earliest university, attracted students from across the world. We read of French, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and other explorers from different parts of the world visiting India and recording tales of note of their findings.

But have you ever heard of any Indian explorer going off on such a similar endeavour?

The answer: No.

True, the gypsies were the only known Indian-traveler-groups, but they don’t fall into the category we are talking about. Shankaracharya roamed the four corners of, well India. King Ashoka, sent his children to Sri Lanka and the Thailand/Malay regions, to spread his new faith - Buddhism. The Chola dynasty did rule over some parts of the Pacific Rim. There were also some artists sent away by their kings as a gift to their visitors, or captured as slaves, they weren’t travelers of their own will, so they don’t count either.

Growing up, we only read about the achievements of ancient Indians: inventing the number system, inventing the art of surgeries (Sushrutha), ancient precise astronomical calculations (Aryabhatta), ancient political treatise (Chanakya) and others from varied and diverse fields.

Not a single explorer among them.

You think of all the brave souls that set sail despite a pervasive belief that the earth was flat. Ancient Indians knew the earth wasn’t flat, and yet they stayed.

Back to the aqua-duct: we walk down a short steep slope that ends in a stream. There is a tunnel at the mouth of the stream, which is filled with slippery stones, slippery from centuries of having water flow through the tunnel. Stick to the left hand side, its less slippery, says the guide.

The water is very cold, having originated in the eternally snow capped Sierra Nevada. Its completely dark inside, and we feel our way forward as though blind, and taking very small steps so as not to slip. Halfway through the tunnel, I feel my feet getting quite numb, grateful that I have to lift my leg for a few seconds of relief in order to put it ahead of the other foot. As we reach the end of the tunnel, you can see full might of the water falling down from a hole near the ceiling on one of the walls of the tunnel, directly across us. Light streams in from above, near the roof of the tunnel. There are brown, rusty-looking foot holds next to the water, leading up to the light. They look like no one has tried them in years. We come out of the tunnel quite pleased with our little adventure, glad we decided to go on the walking tour.

We were running late for our Alhambra appointment, so decide not to join the group for tapas. On our way back, Aric points out a flamenco bar, and a restaurant for great food, both of which we would return to later that day.

Title: I had trouble picking between "Entre dos aguas" by Paco de Lucia, and "La leyenda del tiempo" by Camaron. Both are wonderful, have a listen!

1 comment:

HKL said...

We didn't invent zero, we discovered it. The laws of mathematics govern nature, hence zero has existed since T=0?. We only realized its existence in our endeavors to make sense of our world in an attempt to understand "why we were here".

The concept was introduced to Europe by Spanish Muslims through the Iberian peninsula. They, of course, learnt it through their brethren who were making their incursions into the East.