Spain

La Alhambra and Food Poisoning

Granada and Seville, Spain
2006

 

One of the neatest things about studying abroad is that sometimes your classroom is a famous historical site. This was the case during the organized trip to the city of Granada, home to the famed Moorish palace, the Alhambra. I didn’t know much about it before going there. The most coverage that Spanish history receives in American classrooms is basically limited to the whole Isabel, Ferdinand, Christopher Columbus angle and its connection to the New World, not the old one. My grandmother had been there when she and my grandfather visited Spain on a tour back in the 1970s. But the only thing I really remember her telling me was that it was very hot the day they visited, and that a couple of German tourists had passed out from the heat. Towards the end of the program, when temperatures in Sevilla soared close to 110 degrees, I can see why the heat is the only thing I recalled.
 
The city of Granada itself was somewhat disappointing. It looked all too modern, not at all charming. Maybe I really was biased towards any other city in Spain after living in Sevilla. Where was this architectural legacy that had supposedly been left behind by the Moors after they were kicked out by the tough ass Spanish monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand? After being “released” from the walking tour instructors from the program had taken us on, Tami (another girl in the program) and I decided to explore on our own. As we made our way through the narrow winding streets in the Albaicin, a district which exemplifies its Moorish past,I was feeling more and more dismayed that this was what Granada’s most historic area was today; nothing but North African immigrants selling wares that had been mass produced in China. I found this out after discovering that the pillow slip covers I was about to purchase for my mother had not been made in Morocco, even though the name of the store was Joyas de Marueccos (Jewels of Morocco).
 
The one thing I had read in my guidebooks touted as a unique experience in Granada was going to a traditional Moorish tea house. As in traditional mint tea and North African style pastries. Of course I didn’t get to one. Spain is NOT a tea country. The only time I drank it was in my host family’s house, and only then because they had tea bags that were left over from a former student of theirs. They, of course, never drank any. Throughout the semester I would often hang out with Tricia and every time I did I always came to regret it. She, like me, wasn’t into hardcore drinking like some people in the program, so I think that’s where we first connected. But that day in Granada when all I wanted was some mint tea and some flaky phyllo pastries, Tricia wanted to hang out with some girls from her school. It’s not that the invitation hadn’t been extended to me to join them, but one had the most annoying accent when she spoke Spanish (she sounded like a valley girl), and also had nothing but obnoxious things to say. As I had spent the previous weekend alone, I didn’t really want to bum around Granada alone too. So I tagged along, mentally cursing myself the whole while.
 
When I suggested that we all head to a tea house, I was met with, “like, I really like just want go get a coca light and some jamon.” Tricia, who could see my slightly disappointed face whispered to me, “We’ll head to one later, vale?” Almost two hours later after sitting at the end of the table, having tuned out the mind-numbing conversation 30 minutes into it, the group started to disband with people going their separate ways. As our hotel was a 20 minute walk into the city center where the tea houses were located, I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be going to one, and suggested going to a movie since, turning in that early on a Friday night would have been considered lame by Spanish social standards. There was a theatre about half a block from where we were staying. Tricia agreed and we headed to the 10:30 PM showing of a Spanish movie I remember nothing about today. So much for a unique cultural experience.
 
As the bus drove higher and higher into the hills of the Sierra Nevadas away from the lackluster city center, I finally understood why the Moors had decided to build their lavish palace here. Simply put, the views were incredible. Long forgotten were the tacky souvenirs being hawked in the Albaicin, the disappointment of not having relived a traditional Moorish experience. In Ferdinand and Isabel’s quest to take Spain back from the Moors, Granada was the final city to fall and the Spanish royals would showcase it until their deaths. They even decided to be buried there rather than to be entombed in an abbey in Toledo. Granada from high up was gorgeous.
 
The Alhambra did not disappoint. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Here I was in Spain, a Western European nation but it felt as if I was walking through the rooms of an Ottoman palace in Istanbul. I could imagine myself transported to the world of Aladdin and Scheherazade as there was nothing but bright colors, exotic and elaborate art designs, and endless rows of gold that had been incorporated into the walls and ceiling. Three years earlier I had toured an equally famous palace in Europe, Versailles. While I thought the palace itself was an overhyped attraction due to having to go through each room packed in like a sardine, I could not dispute the sheer opulence of the palace’s look, both inside and out. However, not being able to fully enjoy myself while there reduced its overall grandeur and allure in my book. But at the Alhambra, while touring its rooms, I felt as though I could breathe, something I couldn’t do when going through Versailles. It seemed possible to put on my inner body’s “dream Spain. I could do this because even though the Alhambra was crowded with throngs of visitors, just like it had been that day at Versailles, the design of the rooms allowed you to inhale with their multiple openings, and their very high ceilings. I like to think that the rooms of the palace were constructed this way on purpose, perhaps even as a means of recreating sultry North African nights for the inhabitants. Perhaps…
 
Of all the rooms and areas at the Alhambra, my favorite was the Patio de Los Leones. It was a somewhat simple looking courtyard area except for the striking fountain in the middle, a fountain whose base was made up of elaborately carved lions. Mischievous looking chubby cherubs or naked women must not have been in fashion back in the Moorish times. 
 
Of course pretending to be Princess Jasmine from the cartoon Aladdin doesn’t last forever and the bus eventually transported us back to our hotel in the city center. And it was at the hotel’s restaurant where I most likely got my food poisoning from the beef in the lasagna that had not been fully cooked.
 
            We got back into Sevilla around eight o’clock at night and my roommate Lisa, always the alcohol loving night owl of course went out for the night. I, being the slightly nerdy and more solitary figure, returned home where I ate dinner and became engrossed in a tawdry romance book that had been left by a former program participant. When I finally went to bed that evening, delayed until I found out that the heroine of the book did indeed end up with the poor boat maker, I never imagined the brutal assault I would be dealt the next morning.
 
            No one likes being sick, but being sick when you’re thousands of miles from your own bed and living in what is essentially a stranger’s home, is the absolute worst. When I woke up that morning to a feel of rising vomit, I quickly dashed to the apartment’s only bathroom. I was ever thankful that it was not occupied as it so often was due to my host brother Miguel’s medical condition. Praying that whatever had just come up was the end and I would not experience it again, I returned to bed, hoping I could fall back asleep. Nine in the morning on a Sunday in Spain is entirely too early to be doing anything. This of course was affirmed by the completely dead to the world body of my roommate.


            But less than 20 minutes after I had my first visit to the bathroom, my next trip commenced, and a horrifying onslaught of mad dash trips to the bathroom began. The one bathroom used by five people. As it has never been my fashion to bring much attention to myself, I just told my host mom that I would not be eating lunch, as I wasn’t feeling well not that I ever remembered ever feeling this sick in my life. When Lisa finally showed activity of life sometime around two in the afternoon, she immediately asked me what was wrong upon seeing my rather crumbled body lying in bed underneath the covers. Just like with Estrella, I didn’t go into how horribly sick I really felt and simply said I had picked up some bug. While she and I certainly got along just fine, we never became exceptionally close during our semester of living together.
 
            The rest of the day I alternated between feeling on fire and having intense body chills. When I couldn’t stand keeping how horrible I felt inside anymore, I picked up my cell phone and called home. Fully knowing that my mom wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing to help me, I still wanted to hear her voice all the same. So when calling and speaking with my dad only to be told that my mom was out for the day, I burst into tears…during a phone call with my dad. Having never been the teary, drama-driven female, my dad immediately asked me what was wrong, to which I responded, “I’ve been throwing up all day in between having horrible diarrhea. The only thing I ate today was a little white rice my host mom made and even that I couldn’t keep down.” Had I not been so sick, I never in a million years would have told my dad I had been having diarrhea, but feeling embarrassed was the last thing I was concerned about. Of course nothing he said could make my sick feeling go away but for the 15 or so minutes I was talking with him, I did feel the least bit better. Well that is I didn’t feel as if I would burst into tears anymore.
 
            When I was in high school I never felt bad about missing school if I felt sick. But for some reason when I got to college, tremendous feelings of guilt would wash over me if I even contemplated not going to a class. Maybe it was the fact that some only met once or twice a week and if you missed that class you were SOL. I remember a day I had the most brutal cramps ever as in my back felt like it was literally breaking in two and yet I still went to some lame ass first year required arts course. Well, it was the same in Spain.
 
            My host family’s apartment was located in Triana, which is a neighborhood located on the other side of the Guadalquivir River, across from Sevilla’s famous cathedral and the giralda. Hundreds of years ago, Triana was not part of the city. It was its own city just like Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood. On a day when I was feeling healthy, it would normally take me about 15 minutes to walk from my host family’s house and across the river to the program building. Well, the day after what felt like the invasion into Normandy during World War II on my body, it took me almost 45 minutes to walk it. Every step I took became a labored affair. When I finally made it to the bridge I literally had to stop there and rest for a couple of minutes, because I couldn’t continue right away.
 
            Although I felt bad, I ended up arriving almost 15 minutes late for my class. When I started to apologize the professor informed me that students in the class had told her I had been sick, so she said she  was surprised to see me at all. I didn’t want to tell her that I would feel even more sick had I missed her class and gotten behind with the notes and material.
 
            Research on the Internet on my symptoms made me believe that I did indeed have food poisoning. A week of an extremely bland diet-rice, boiled potatoes, yogurt, and bread-did not help my still overall feeling of unsettledness. Not wanting to endure it anymore, I finally visited the doctor whom the program was affiliated with. A friend from the program accompanied me, for which I was ever grateful since it’s scary enough visiting a doctor in a foreign country, especially when the physician is a man and you don’t speak the language one hundred percent fluently. Although I didn’t understand every bit of information he told me, I did receive a prescription for two different medicines. One was oral tablets, the other a humongous glass bottle whose contents not only resembled cod liver oil but tasted like it as well. The tablets of course only had to be taken for a week, while the cod liver oil had to be taken three times a week for almost three weeks. Nothing was more comical at the center than when I produced my large glass bottle of medicine. Oh, the joys of being sick abroad.

            It took almost a month before I felt fully back to normal. Getting that sick was truly a harrowing experience for me, since not only was I in a foreign country, but I was sick the whole time alone. You’re never too old to want to have mommy taking care of you. It was from that experience that I reckoned I could never make it in the Peace Corps. Although it had been my dream since the age of 13 to apply for a position in the Peace Corps, perhaps to work in an African country, I sadly realized that if I could barely stand throwing up and having diarrhea in a place with an actual bed and indoor plumbing, I would never make it in a million years where the “bush” was the bathroom and the pharmacy was whatever root the medicine man gave you.

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