Wednesday, April 29, 2009
2009 Al Andalus: Descanso En Cordoba!
Thursday April 2 2009
Perhaps one of the best words you can learn in Spanish (besides Siesta), is Descanso - Rest. As in DESCANSO IN CORDOBA!!
After 6 straight days and 377 kilometers, Tierras de Al-Andalus was taking a day off, in the city of Cordoba. Really, nobody was going to 'rest' much, because there were still horses to take care of, and there was an old city waiting to be discovered. But just to be able to really open the suitcase and spread out for a whole day and a half, sleep in a bit, and just sit and breathe for a few minutes was, if nothing else, a mental break.
I slept in till some ungodly hour like 9 AM, then I got up and followed somebody's dirt tracks down the elegant marble steps to breakfast where I joined the Belgians (living in Spain), Joelle, Bernard and Melanie.
Joelle is quite amazed at the trails the organization found. Some people think it's rocky, but it's not rocky compared to where Joelle comes from. "Alicante (Spain) is rocky, Florac is rocky, and France where I lived and had a riding school is rocky. I'm used to stones - all my horses have padded, or siliconed feet, so we were prepared." Joelle observed there are less paved roads on this ride than in other European rides. She was also amazed at how well the ride has gone. "Of course there will be problems" in a ride like this, she said, though the only major things we could think of were the two times when there wasn't enough water provided for the horses, at a vet gate and a finish line.
After breakfast I, by golly, was not going to work; I was going to take advantage of this Descanso Day, and do some exploring. I grabbed my camera and walked across the Roman bridge into the old city.
The Romans built "Corduba" in 169 BC because of its strategic importance on the Gaudalquivir River. It became a main shipping port for transporting local olive oil and wine back to Rome.
The Moors conquered Cordoba in 711 or 716 AD and began building the Great Mosque, or "Mezquita," in 785 AD, over the ruins of the Romans' Basilica of San Vicente. It was inspired by the Mosque of Damascus, but still retained a strong Hispano-Roman influence, seen in the materials used, the direction in which the nave was set, and the superposed arches and alternation of red brick and beige stone in the bonding of the arches, modeled after the Episcopal palace. It eventually became one of the largest mosques in all of Islam. The Moors also built the Calahorra Fort that guards the Roman Bridge across the Guadalquivir from the Mezquita. Cordoba became one of the largest cities in the world in the 10th century.
The Christians under King Ferdinand III reconquered Cordoba in 1236, and instead of tearing down the beautiful Mosque, they converted it into a cathedral, adapting and adding to some of the architecture that was already there. The Christians also built the Alcazar (Fortress) de los Reyes Cristianos in the 14th century, incorporating parts of the Moorish Alcazar that was already there.
After wandering around the relatively quiet streets a while, I found my way to the stables, where people were busy with their horses: shoeing - at least three shoers were busy on horses, hosing legs, icing feet, brushing, wrapping legs, grazing on the sparse grass, walking horses, lunging horses, trotting out horses to check soundness, and turnouts.
The German girls were standing outside with Heike Blumel's horse "Lenny" - he was uncomfortable and could barely move. They had been waiting on the vets to show up, whose "In 5 minutes" was Al Andalus time, more like a half hour or more. Lenny looked uncomfortable, but his eyes weren't glazed over, so I wasn't too worried about him.
When the vets finally arrived, they examined him, and tried to figure out what it was. Visually, it looked like a tie-up, but that didn't fit. The blood they took confirmed it wasn't a tie-up. Heike had ridden him 5 straight days at a very conservative and sensible pace between 11.5 and 12.5 km/h. Lenny vetted out lame at the finish of Day 5, and so had the day off yesterday. Overnight he'd pooped and peed normally, ate up his food and drank a whole bucket of water overnight. Today he was stocked up, and swollen in one of his stifles.
By the time they decided to put Lenny on an IV, it took 6 people to move him - practically lifting him - the 20 yards to and then into his stall because he just couldn't move his hind end and barely his front. They had to let him rest halfway because his hind end about collapsed. Poor Heike was in tears by the time they got him in his stall... last I saw they were preparing an IV for him. It was the beginning of a long day... and more... for her.
I ran into Fernando Uriarte, visiting from northern Spain (he gave Steph a horse to ride last year in Al Andalus), and with him, we picked up Binomios rider David Gacino and his crew Alberto and walked into the old town, heading for the Alcazar. The participants in Al Andalus were given a free pass into the Alcazar today.
After we walked around the fortress and gardens, and admired some of the old mosaics that had once been in the center of the old city - now hanging on the walls of a museum inside, the boys then went back to the stables, and Fernando and I continued wandering around the city.
We stopped for tapas in a bar where I had yet another version of salmorejo and more of the Iberican jamon that was so delicious. Leaving the bar we walked across the street into the Cathedral plaza, and ran into Alexis and Ines and Jose Manuel Soto. We were going to go into the Cathedral, and bought tickets, but then changed our minds and decided to walk to the old Jewish quarter for more tapas.
Mariki, mother and crew of rider Claudia Lorenzo, joined us - Claudia has dropped out of the competition because her mare vetted out lame on Day 3, and had developed a problem that didn't allow her to continue any more. It was Claudia's first time at Al Andalus and they enjoyed the 3 days she did ride, so Mariki hopes they can return next year with a more conditioned horse.
Mariki and I continued walking and talking together - all of it conducted in Spanish, and finally Alexis interrupted - "Merri! Your Spanish has greatly improved!" It really had! It did take a lot of effort, and at the end of some days I was just exhausted from it, but it made things a lot more fun. You miss so much when you don't understand another language (though boy, I still have a long way to go).
We wandered the narrow labyrinthine streets through the medieval quarter in "La Juderia" (The Jewry), once the home of the Jewish community. We stumbled upon a lovely plaza where we sat outside and had the typical Andalucian lunch: tapas, wine, and more people. Three more friends of Jose joined us, then another 3 friends showed up, then I saw Emilio the photographer across the square and I waved him over. We kept pulling more chairs around our two tables till we had so many chairs we had to get up to reach the tapas on the tables.
Fernando and I concocted next year's "Spanamericano Team" for Al-Andalus, Fernando and me riding as an Equipos team on Arenal (Steph's mount last year) and another of his horses, "and Steph as photographer!"
And speaking of trying to concentrate hard on understanding Spanish - at times here at lunch there were 8 Spanish conversations going on simultaneously, and 8 cell phones ringing at various times, so I could no longer understand anything. (Or maybe it was the white wine.)
After we'd consumed enough food and drink and company, Mariki, Fernando, Alexis, Ines and I strolled back to the Cathedral to use our tickets. We wandered the dark corridors and arches of the Basilica-Mosque-Cathedral with its Islamic inscriptions and Christian adornments and combined architecture.
When we left, I had to split off to go do SOME work at the hotel, as it was about 4:00, and the vetting in was at 5 - which i was going to skip this time - and the Al Andalus meeting/party was at "8PM" in the Alcazar.
I stated this in Spanish, and Ines started laughing and hugged me - "Oh my god Merri, you are speaking spanish!" (Alexis corrected one verb tense - dang those tenses!) OK now I am really motivated to learn more for next year!
I did get a small amount of work done, then got ready for the "8 PM" meeting back in the old city, which was, I figured, a 10-minute walk across the bridge. Silly me, I was ready and in the lobby at a quarter to 8, thinking people would be heading over, (I was thinking in American time), and sure - there were people down there, but nobody dressed to go to a party/meeting. Some were on the internet, some were visiting, and most were in their stable clothes.
I faded back upstairs and then came down at a more reasonable time, after 8 PM, and caught Gabriel and Jose Maria (?) starting to walk over to the meeting. I went with them, and others we caught on the way; and we waited outside the Alcazar talking with everybody till after 9 PM.
Heike Blumel was there after spending most of the day with her horse Lenny; he was a little better, but still didn't want to move. They didn't know if they would be able to transport him tomorrow or not, so their plans were on hold for tomorrow - either drive to tomorrow's finish at Montoro, or to a vet clinic, or stay here, if he still could not load onto a trailer. He was still peeing OK, his blood work wasn't too off, and it still didn't indicate he was tied up; but they still weren't sure what it was. Lenny still had a lot of fluid everywhere that was causing pain in his legs; one of the vets thought it was muscle pain; one thought it might be a fracture in his stifle. They'd given him 9 liters of fluid and some pain killers and anti-inflammatories, and would check on his condition again tonight.
Leonard and Carol were there, looking like two different people because I'd only seen them the last 7 days in their riding and crewing clothes and vests. Leo said "This is my last clean shirt left!" They had a severe weight limit on their Ryan air flight to Alicante so he couldn't bring much except what to ride in.
Finally we were let into the Alcazar around 9 PM, and we had the meeting, once again, in a room with too few chairs. Fernando and I grabbed seats close to the front. It was the usual ride meeting: chaotic, loud, most of it in Spanish, and the rest you couldn't hear. This time they did use a microphone (for the first time!) and tried to interpret most things to French and English; Juan Landa spoke in Spanish and French, Alexis in English. But the microphone didn't really help after all... people just talked louder to drown it out. Even Fernando shook his head and said "Incray-ible!"
The ride meetings were always on the verge of mayhem... but you just adapt. The Germans always cornered Javier afterwards to find out the details of the start and the crewing in his labored English; I always asked him when the start was and when we'd leave the hotel in the morning.
In addition to the 65 kilometer Al Andalus ride tomorrow, there would be a 120 km 2** ride, with international FEI rules that would start a half hour before Al Andalus. We'd all leave by caravan from the stables to the starting line, about a half hour drive out of town.
A speech was given by the mayor, or second mayor of the town (it was too noisy for me to concentrate on Spanish!); then the awards were exuberantly given out, big, bottles of Extra Virgin Aceite de Oliva.
Now here's an example of how the strategy of just riding steadily every day, and to your own horse's ability, pans out: moving up to second place overall now in Equipos was the team of Emma Rosell on Al-Jatib and Maria Capdevila on Pinyo. Taking turns riding every other day, Emma and Maria had placed 2nd (17.6 km/h), 4th (15.9 km/h), 5th (15.8 km/h),11th (16.7 km/h), and 9th (15.6 km/h).
I talked to Maria's mom Nuria, who was their crew and biggest fan. Like many other people here, Al Andalus was a dream of theirs. Nuria's 14-year-old daughter Maria had wanted to ride in the first edition of Al Andalus in 2006, but at 11 years old, she was too young. She'd started riding dressage when she was 3, but dressage is a lot more expensive than endurance (which isn't cheap either), so Nuria asked her, "You want to try endurance?" (Hoping she'd say yes.). Maria did, and they eventually set their sights on Al Andalus. They had to get special permission from the Catalon and Spanish federations so Maria could ride here for the first time when she was 12. It was also Emma's third year to ride Al Andalus. It was their horses' debut in Al Andalus; Emma rides a gorgeous 10-year-old stallion, who is "getting stronger every day." He gets nervous at the starts, but he settles down once he gets going. He carries himself beautifully, collected and smooth.
And why do they keep coming back? Nuria loves the people, the countryside, the food, the experience. After all the fun I've seen Maria having with the other young riders, it's obvious the friendships are as fun for her as is the riding.
After the meeting we adjourned outside to a courtyard of the fortress, and everybody appeared to be like me: STARVED. Nobody is ever sure if it will be a sit-down meal or tapas... or just beer and wine. It seemed tonight we'd just have plentiful drinks.
Finally the waiters started coming, and they put one plate down on each table. Fingers SWARMED over the food (yes, mine were in there) and it disappeared immediately. I don't even know what it was, it went straight down the hatch.
After a few more minutes, one more plate came and the food was attacked as if by jungle ants in the jungle - there one second, gone the next. Really, these were some hungry endurance people (me included). I was so starved I migrated to another table to try to cadge more food (like other people) - no, it was gone!
Finally the tapas began to come with more regularly and more variety - and the desperation wore off, and people (like me) stopped desperately grabbing for food and slowed down to enjoy the drinks and food and conversations without interruptions. I was getting pretty good at talking with people - though my Spanish and powers of concentration had faded by this point in the night... or maybe it was the beer.
There were rumors of Jose Manuel Soto singing somewhere "at 9 PM" - to those with a private invitation shown to me by Fernando - but we'd seen Jose here as late as 10 PM. I could have tried to sneak in, but I didn't know where it was, didn't know how long it would last (or when it would start), I was exhausted (so much for the "descanso in Cordoba"), and there's always the ordeal of having to wait around for a ride back at whatever time of the morning, or trying to find a taxi at 3, 4, 5, or 6 in the morning... so I walked back to the hotel with some friends, and fell into bed around 12:30, ready for the last two days of Al-Andalus.