A Speed Demon in Seville / Powered by a Mysterious Brew ( Travelogue Spain)
Posted by intellisg on July 12, 2007
The Moors had it in the evenings flavored with dates. Christian crusaders during lunchtime with a dash of nutmeg and when Christopher Columbus first spotted the first sliver of ‘terra incognita,’ he nearly choked on it. Yes, he was having it too on the tub, the Santa Maria. They’ve been having it since the year zero from the looks of it. From lorry drivers to nuns in their starched habits, they’re all chomping it down fast and furiously all across Seville. Sorry, I got to dig in. If it cools, it hardens to a consistency resembling a brick so it’s best if we hurry and gobbled it down – absolutely delicious. What are we having?
It’s the best kept secret in the whole of Spain , only because it’s usually served during the early morning well before break fast time. So it’s practical invisible to the tourist crowd. I wake up at five can’t break the habit even if I happen to knock off at 4! What am I having again? Spanish soul food, hot chocolate with churros (fried dough, taste a lot like Yau cha Kueh), but there’s more to it than meets the eye – calling it glorified ‘Milo’ hardly captures this working class chocolate dip, it’s a bit like calling the Sistine Chapel a Bible comic. Much of it has to do with the preparation. The secret to making a creamy, rich, frothy chocolate drink is all in the technique which involves whisking it with a wooden hand mill called a mollinillo it under high flame till a rich forth forms. In Seville, it’s flavored with a dash of nutmeg and orange rind.
No one talks much while munching down hot chocolate and churos. The whole meal proceeds roughly at the speed of a bullet train in full toss in a café in Plaza Santa Cruz in the old quarter in Seville. Within five minutes flat, we’ve finished – delicious!
Hardly had I stood up, it struck me, the high, can’t really describe it except to say, it’s the feel that comes with a sudden sugar rush after a third shot of vodka. “Que passé?” My host Manuel looks at me, registering my unsteadiness. I look at him as if to say, “Manuel, you should have warned me.” He laughs as to suggest, it will past, we make our way by bicycle through the cobble stones streets, its raining slightly pass the tapas bar and tabernas, their sumptuous orange mangroves filling the air. What a great way to start the day! On a high note.
There is much more to this mainstay than simply melted chocolate and fried dough. But let’s leave that all aside for the moment. Today I am going to take you around Seville, not by car, bus, boat, plane or helicopter but on two wheels. This is where I have to let you into a secret, if you really want to get deep down into a soul of a city and get your hands around it, there’s no better way than getting through the perspective of a bike messenger or cycle courier.
Trickiest part is getting into the tribe, so remember this: do some research first, before you try to break it. Tip: there’s always a dress code, I have done this too many times in practically every major city in the world to know the ritual only too well. It could be the way they rig out their bikes or even something as simple as turning your baseball cap the other way round, but pay close attention to the details.
The second rule of the game is respect, never ever walk in without paying homage to the alpha monkey, there’s always one and if you don’t see him, that’s a bad start because someone probably thinks you’re an undercover DEA agent on an international assignment. Cigarettes are good for icebreakers, but keep the volume down and never talk too much and don’t go on behaving like a tourist. Besides no one talks a lot in this sort of outfit, they’re a diverse bunch, with backgrounds ranging from vagabonds to tourist who have just run out of money scrapping enough for the return airfare to those who have jumped shipped from the French Foreign Legion. The headman looks me up and down, he seems to be in his mid twenties, but he could be older, there’s no particular ‘courier’ look, they tend to have that lean, hard-body look that you just don’t get sitting eight hours behind a desk. Some have been ridding for years, others like myself are just filling in as ‘mules,’ these are second and third riders which tail the lead rider carrying additional mail to spread out the load. You can always tell the mules from the leads, the former don’t have maps strapped to their tights, compasses hanging off from some strap and walkie-talkies. They are less battle hardened, preferring bright, fluorescent dress codes that betrays their fears only too clearly. On a good day one can earn about USD$200 plus tips.
Today we’re luck, they’re running short of mules, it’s a Monday so the head man gives me the thumbs up – he manages only a wink but I have passed the monkey test. Manuel a banker who regularly rides with them on his off days is smiling, that’s a good sign.
Our first route takes us all the way Plaza De Torros Maestranza across the Puente De San Telmo, if we take the main route, it works out to be a brisk 45 min ride. One of the boys suggest taking the narrow cobble streets through what they call the “heart of the dragon” a series of windy cobble stone passages in the Medina passage. He doesn’t wait for an answer, we’re off. In a while we’re whizzing at break neck speed past narrow passages, some so narrow you could even touch two walls. From time to time, a court yard opens up along with a burst of light, it stings the eye, enough to make out the vast Museo del Selvilla, one of the main art thoroughfares which regular sell reproductions of Picasso, Miro and Dali. It’s a blur of colors and shapes all piled up on top of each other. I am more concerned about hanging on, ridding on cobble stone is a new experience to me and its wet, I lose control a few times on wet glass, enough to remind me, I should be paying closer attention to finding the line. But speeding along at 60 mph hardly does wonders for the learning curve – I suck in and try not to lag too far behind. Barreling downhill on the longest stretch called the Puerta de Sol, we whiz past rows and rows of El Greco styled shop houses – the dwellers laying out their wares as the morning shoppers begin to trickle in. Manuel turns to me signaling me to speed up, I register his sense of urgency, if we don’t get out of here in 10 minutes, the whole street will suck us in – I shift to a higher gear – pedal harder – somewhere along San Mateo and the river bank Paseo – I leave my fears behind.
The lead rider is an old hand, he can’t be more than thirty most definitely ‘tan chiak’ stock, his movements sharp, judgment flawless with the cool headedness that comes from years of experience. At times, he slows down at certain intersections, he seems to studying the awakening crowd, consulting his map which I noticed has its own squiggles as if he’s cracked the quickest route between two points. At other times, he just wings it, most of the time, we get a clean line and the ride is hard and furious.
Anyone who thinks you have to go pay USD$80,000 to climb Everest should try following a courier in this labyrinth. The lead boy keeps signaling us to be mindful of this and that, whenever he puts to fingers up to his eyes, we all start begin to eyeball for lorries and buses. The bike boys call these stretches the ‘dead zones’ – ‘el cahon’ – coffins – places where other riders have met their end, it’s a sort of ritual they all go through, slowing down on those stretches to honor the dead or to avoid traffic. I don’t really know for sure, but these places look menacing even by New York City standards. They are almost guaranteed to leave one white knuckled and awash with cold sweat – a few cars past by no more than a few inches to spare. I am sure they saw me, I am in a bright red jersey. I am sure they saw me – I just need to hang on as best I can. It’s only fifteen past nine – we have another 7 hours to go!
By the end of the first delivery, I’ve have more or less figured out how to shift my weight across those slippery cobble stones. Four more deliveries follow after that, one of them taking us across the sprawling Jardines De Los Reales Alcaeares, located East of Seville. We strike for the short cut cutting through the historical square, one of the guards shout out, but none of us stop, soon we are whizzing through boutiques brimming with designer wear along the hotel Alfonso XIII, 800 years in 15 minutes! Not bad, I say to myself.
Being a bicycle courier isn’t dull, not by a long stretch. I can well see the appeal of the job if one manages to survive the day. It’s pretty hard to complain of boredom when you are trying to avoid some blind driver chasing you down a narrow street in 20 ton truck!
Around mid-day we take lunch on the saddle, its finger food, but the boys share with us a need trick, keep it all in a plastic bag, give it a good and just suck at it, don’t try to bite your way through it – it works, well enough, pity my stomach is in knots, its nice pizza.
By evening after delivering the last of our packages, we find ourselves in a courtyard the locals call, Al-hambrah, which used to be the Moorish quarter, the sun is setting all across Seville and the cobble stones take on the look of gold medallions shimmering like some golden sea of splendor. The lead boy splits the takings with us, we hardly say two words and he’s off pedaling furiously into the sun set across the bridge past, torre del oro an almost haunting landmark, a fortress built by Sultan Ibn Alhmar in the 13th century when muslim troops first march through here on their way to Granada. Just before disappearing he stops, looks back and punches a fist into the air. It must be their battle cry, we do the same – he’s gone with the wind.
As we pause for a while gathering ourselves on the saddle, evening had begun to unfold. The crowd spilled into the streets and with it the smell of hot chocolate deep-fried pastry churros filled the air again.
“You know we have them for breakfast, but here, they’re just waking up. What do you say amigo – chocolate and churros?”
How could I say No.
(This has been proudly brought to you by Aurora, your friendly Brotherhood controller -2007)
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