Thursday, August 7, 2008

Vaughantown and the Spanish Sky

Copyright © 2008 The Arroyo Seco Journal

MONFRAGUE, EXTREMADURA, SPAIN—150 kilometers from Madrid near the Portuguese border, the sun is bearing down on this national park like light through a magnfiying glass burning little black ants.

Three hours from Madrid, on a four-acre, four-star resort hotel property in the shadow of Trujillo Castle, 10 Spanish students and 10 “Anglos” are assembled in “VaughanTown” for a week of one-on-one chats, discussions, phone calls, play performances, evening cocktails and morning coffee. The idea is to create a full-immersion learning situation for native Spanish speakers, far away from dreary classrooms.

I spent three weeks in and around Madrid this summer “working” at Vaughan Learning Systems’ two Spanish campuses, in Gredos de Avila, and Monfrague, in the region of Extremadura.

This is the basic idea: English-speaking “Anglos,” as they are referred to, are recruited from all over the world to stay in a luxury hotel here, and spend the week conversing with Spaniards. About everything. And I mean everything. Spaniards hear english as it is actually spoken, and not just by Americans.

Easy enough, right? Well, we’ll get to that in a second.

I had two misconceptions about this place at the very outset: one, that we would be dealing with stodgy Spanish executives and middle managers, and two, that this would be a vacation. Though the ages vary, the students are all youthful and dynamic. In this first week, there’s Maria Jose, the computer physicist, serious but with a streak of silliness just begging to be coaxed out of her. We spent a walk to the nearby village discussing Cary Grant movies and the creation of new computer ISDN addresses. Earlier in the week, she’d donned a wig and hideous glasses to play one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters, in a performance for the whole group.

Jesus, a 51 year-old business management consultant, portrayed Oscar Madison in a scene from Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” with hilarious results.

Andres, a “Master Student” and engineer for a produce company, and I, engaged in an intense discussion of music from Nine Inch Nails and System of a Down to Bruce Springsteen, and then, as we walked back to the hotel from the village, he proudly showed me his new iPhone.

Among the “Anglos” are Carolyn, a charming teacher from Manchester Metropolitan University; Will, a young, exuberant former college baseball player here for a week before heading off to a small private school in Maine this fall to teach; Fiona McDonald, a recent Oxford graduate headed off to the world of financial planning; Margaret, from Leeds, a landscape artist who played the wicked stepmother and narrator for an improvised traditional English pantomime version of “Cinderella.” (Due to an accounting error, I was picked to play Prince Charming. I was also the only male in our little troupe).

That’s not everyone, but combined, the first week’s group is dynamic, gregarious, smart and really fun to hang around with.
But this is no vacation, really. Don’t get the wrong idea. Come prepared to talk. A lot.

Our first week’s campus is the Hospederia Parque de Monfrague in Extremadura, a region of Spain known for its blazing hot summers and its ham (There’s a chain or restaurants in Madrid called “The Museum of Ham,” to give you some indication of the importance of the local product.) There is also a luxurious pool alongside a spacious grass lawn, as well as gracious Spanish dining with attentive and courteous waiters.

Both campuses are in fact, luxury hotels, with differing and similar characteristics and facilities. The Gredos campus sits just outside the village of Barco de Avila and the famous walled city of Avila, the fabled home of St. Theresa de Avila.

Over the course of a week from Sunday morning to Friday afternoon, Anglos and Spaniards follow a set schedule that includes general conversations, and group presentations. Imagine being thrust into a vacation with two dozen strangers, half of whom expect you to talk to them, all the time, non-stop. It is as rewarding and as draining as you might imagine. Our conversations ranged from American and Spanish politics, family issues, morality, business ethics, and well, a lot more sex than I expected. Many times I was asked the names of sexual parts of the body, or questioned as to my own sexual tastes. Oh, those Spaniards. (One Anglo reportedly spent his one-on-one-time showing pictures of his FaceBook female friends to his Spanish counterpart and explaining the American slang names for well, you can imagine).

The show is run and organized by a master of ceremonies and director, who change from week to week, and from location to location. Greg Stanford, a professor of drama at St. Louis’ University’s Madrid campus, led our first week, along with Carmen Villa, our charming and elegant director.

A mixture of corn and sincerity, Stanford engaged the group with a stream of silly jokes, scenes from Simon and Ionesco, and created an atmosphere which teetered easily somewhere between family and best friends.
“We were really fortunate this week to have such a great group,” said Stanford. “Everyone got along so well. That doesn’t happen very often. This one was magic.”

Okay, now add to all of this the fact that this was my first trip to Spain, and my first trip to Europe. Ever. That backpack trip you took through Europe after college? I took it last month.

So everything was new to me. Gathering footage for an accompanying video of the trip, I told the camera more than once, that far more skillfull American writers had traveled this road before me, and I wondered what I could add to the hundreds of years of insight.

I arrived on a flight from Munich to Madrid late on a Friday night. I saw little on the taxi ride from the airport to the city. Come Saturday morning. Boarding the clean and efficient (and air-conditioned) Madrid Metro at Ciudad Lineal on my way to the Sol Station, I ascended a flight of stairs to the street above.

As if in a wide-screen movie, I emerged on to Gran Via, one of the main boulevards of Madrid. The whole of the street appeared before me—heat and crowds and beauty and history converged at once. I literally laughed out loud.

“I’m in Europe.”

Though Spanish-speaking, Madrid isn’t Los Angeles, and it certainly isn’t Mexico. Having only emerged from the shadow of former dictator Francisco Franco in the mid-70s, it has re-emerged, and re-invented itself into one of Europe’s most progressive and important cities. (Following the March 11, 2004 Madrid Metro terrorist attacks, newly elected president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero promptly withdrew Spain’s forces from Iraq. President Bush, not surprisingly, is loathed by most Spaniards.)

Madrid’s modern wide boulevards, and narrow streets in its historic section near the Plaza Del Sol, teem with people at all hours of the day and night. The afternoon slows slightly with the last vestiges of “siesta,” and then ratchets itself back up, going full-bore till long past midnight.

On the Friday night of my first week in Madrid, I joined a group of Anglos and Spaniards for dinner at Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world, according to Guinness. But before that, I strolled through the Plaza Meyor in the middle of Madrid near the dead center of Spain, as the lights began to come up, families and couples filled the Square, and a thin line of blue and purple lit the skies just over the rooftops. Magic would be too easy a word for it.

And oh, the Spanish skies.

Standing on the terrace at Monfrague on my first night, I stared up into the deepest and biggest sky I had ever seen. Miles from Madrid, thousands of stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon, in a huge, mesmerizing, and humbling display of nature.

The Spaniards may remember the idioms and phrasal verbs they learned. I will remember the Spanish sky. 0034.91.591.48.30

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Really Long Way From Madrid

WAIKIKI, OAHU, HAWAII—"Speed, balance and direction,’ those are the three things you need to know about surfing,” our surfing instructor tells a group of us on a sleepy Wednesday morning, just across the street from the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku. Since I haven’t actually stood on a surfboard since the 20th Century, I listen intently, silently praying to Brian Wilson that, before lunch, I will be catching a wave and sitting on top of the world.

My morning at the Hans Hedeman Surfing School in Waikiki is only the latest in a series of excellent adventures since arriving here on Saturday afternoon, and parking myself at the Waikiki Outrigger hotel. (Full disclosure: Travel and transportation arrangements were provided gratis through the Oahu Tourism Bureau, who booked us at the Outrigger, the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore, and the Aqua Coconut Waikiki,over a span of five nights and six days.)

Since living here in the mid-80s as the editor of the local entertainment monthly, I was startled to see the amount of new development on Kalakaua Avenue, which runs along the Waikiki beachfront. New and renovated hotels sit chock-a-block with designer stores as well as the requisite t-shirt and chotchke emporiums and ABC stores. Five-dollar t shirts hold court next to Louis Vitton and Coach merchandise. As it should be, I suppose. The effect is a dizzying whirlwind of shops and surf, coated with a fine scent of coconut oil. To this day, coconut tanning oil always reminds me of Kalakaua Avenue.

The view from the Outrigger Waikiki looks like every postcard of Hawaii you’ve ever seen. The luminescent, teal-colored water shimmers under a blazing sun that will fry you like carne asada faster than you can say, “We go power grindin’ at Zippy’s, li’dat.”

From the 14th floor, Diamond Head looms over the landscape like the Sphinx, and the horizon is a continuous monochromatic vision of blues. A $20 million renovation project, begun in September 2002, has re-imagined the once-dowdy Outrigger Hotels & Resorts' Waikiki property, including its 495 guest rooms, 30 oceanfront suites, and the 18,000-square-foot lobby. A one-hundred-year-old koa canoe sits front and center in the renovated lobby. Everything dazzles at the Outrigger, and the service and accomodations are quietly and elegantly impeccable.

Though we traveled here in the middle of summer at the height of travel season, there is really no peak season on the eight main islands that make up Hawaii. (Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and the Big Island of Hawaii, if you’re taking notes. Niihaau is privately owned, and Kahoolawe is a former military target area, not open to the public).

With Honolulu as the 11th largest metropolitan area in the US, and the largest in actual size (It’s complicated), Hawaii is unique in that there are no racial or ethnic majorities here. Everyone is a minority. Caucasians (Haoles) constitute about 34 percent; Japanese-American about 32 percent; Filipino-American about 16 percent and Chinese-American about five percent. Most of the population has some mixture of ethnicities. Very few are strictly Polynesian.

And now back to our trip, currently in progress.

Saturday evening found us beachfront at the Outrigger’s luxury Hula Grill restaurant,
staring out at a cinematic sunset and staring down at plates topped with gourmet- quality entrees, only the first of several frankly spectacular dinners we would enjoy over the course of the week, each one vying for the title of “best ------ I’ve ever had.” By the time the sun dipped below the Earth’s blue edge,we were giddy and satiated with food, sun, turquoise-colored drinks with umbrellas, and the constant ringing disbelief in our heads that we were actually here.

And things would only get better from this point on, as if that were even possible.
A drive up and over H1 past Pearl City, Aiea, and the Dole Pineapple factory (now more a museum than an active factory), brought us to the entrance of the Turtle Bay Resort. Situated at Hawaii’s North Shore alongside the beach town of Haliewa and the famous surfing locations of Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and the Banzai Pipeline, the hotel is a spectacular bit of everything Hawaii offers.

“Depending on what you like,” explains PR rep Keoki Wallace, “You can find it here.”
The resort boasts 443 beach cottages and guest rooms, and owns nearly five miles of beachfront which is not only peaceful and secluded, but also lays claim to some of the most impressive waves in the world every winter.

It’s hard to believe as I sit,watching a quiet, peaceful bay with
gently lapping waves, but those same waves become 20 and 30-foot raging
monsters who take no quarter come November.

There are two pools, one with a pool slide, two golf courses, tennis courts, horseback riding, hiking and mountain bike trails, and of course, a surfing school, as well as free scuba lessons. Since the hotel’s footprint is so large and diverse, it’s the home for numerous TV and film productions, says Wallace, who has arranged close to 40 during his few years at the hotel.

Wallace points to a lush, dense clump of palm trees across the bay. “They shoot “Lost” over there.” He goes on to explain that because of the diversity of the landscape, as well as the luxurious facilities, the hotel is a popular choice among production companies.

“We can produce everything from the jungles of Viet Nam to the shores of Cape Cod here,” he says.

Just a few miles south of the resort, alongside Waimea and Sunset Beach, sits the historic beach town of Haliewa, a cozy little melange of Hawaiian cowboy shacks with restaurants, surf shops, and more surf shops. At one end of a seven-mile stretch of beaches and some 40 surf breaks, it’s a madhouse every winter, as thousands of fans converge for Uber-Surf contests like the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, with waves the size of houses roaring down toward the shore from hundreds of feet out, turbo-powered by winter Pacific storms. No hodads allowed here, bro.

We spent two luxurious nights at Turtle Bay—with daily jaunts into Haliewa for t-shirts and tourism,—with the highlight being the resort’s first-ever Winery Dinner, featuring Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards, a Napa Valley-based operation, hosted by owner/raconteur John Komes, who introduced each course and accompanying wine. The five-course meal offered a pair of Chardonnays, a Cabernet Sauvigon, and a Merlot, which Komes naturally defended after its savaging in the hit film,

Courses ranged from Cajun-spiced Ahi, diver scallops, roasted duck breast and a pan-seared beef tenderloin, each of which was sublime. And devoured.
Tuesday brought us to The Aqua Coconut Wakiki hotel, a smart, stylish boutique hotel on the banks of the Ala Wai canal, where crew teams practice in the early evening twilight. This is an affordable but high-quality alternative to the pace and price of beachfront Waikiki, and within walking distance of everything you might desire Honolulu-wise.

The Aqua chain also owns the Aqua Surf and Spa, where I was treated to a surprisingly effective massage to bang out the dents I had acquired surfing.

Oh yes, surfing.

I paddled out, turned my Laird board around to face the shore, and as the next wave tucked under and lifted me, I was sailing along in a sea of foam and wind. Remembering my lesson, I stood up quickly, and for the 10-second ride, I understood again why people give up their lives to do this. Sure, I wiped out more than a few times in true surfer fashion, but standing atop the board and dreaming of the Pipeline, I surfed. I paddled out again. I surfed. I paddled out again. I surfed. Until my shoulder said, “No mas,” I surfed, dude.

How was your week?