Hola from Valencia! We are currently sitting in our newest home away from home: Hostal Bisbal, located in the historic center of Valencia. We are very fortunate to be just a few steps from the Mercat Central, Europe’s oldest and largest market. Although we have only been here in the city for a short two days, we have already made two morning visits to this market for some fresh fruit and people watching. I guess we should start from the beginning, though.
Our first evening here was spent wandering through the main plazas and searching out some new Mediterranean food options. First stop: the Ginger Loft. This modern, international-style restaurant was both satisfying to our hungry stomachs and to our college student wallets. After a bit more exploring, we made it back to the hostal to rest up for our first day of work.
We are beginning to master the process of packing up the backpack and navigating the streets as early as possible to attempt to visit the nonprofit offices before they close. As we have mentioned in a few earlier posts, however, this task is proving to be rather difficult. Sometimes we wonder if the addresses listed on the websites for these organizations even truly exist.
Our first attempt in Valencia was the Rescate office, an organization that provides relief to international refugees here in Valencia. We ventured across the city to find the exact location, but instead found a residential apartment building where no one seemed to recognize the name of our destination. It can be a bit frustrating to continually find ourselves in this situation, but we find that many of our most interesting and important experiences come in rather unexpected places. Tired, but not completely discouraged, we decided to walk back to the hostal to regroup and plan for the rest of the week.
This morning we started again, but this time decided to spend a little time taking in the sights of the city before attempting another office visit. We made our way to the Plaza de la Reina to see the Catedral de Valencia, a beautiful cathedral that offers the best bird’s-eye view of the town from its bell tower.
The march to the top included about 207 steps, but the view was definitely worth the hike. The impressive artwork and craftsmanship of the church was extremely impressive, but we were most intrigued by the 16th-century human arm on display behind the main altar. The limb belongs to Saint Vincent the martyr – the patron saint of Valencia – and sits as a quite shocking reminder of the sacrifices of the early church.
After our cathedral tour, we made our way to the metro station and headed toward the beach! We were searching, yet again, for food. However, we had a more definite goal in mind this time: La Pepica, Valencia’s oldest and most renowned beach-front restaurant known for its scrumptious paella (large pans of rice, vegetables, seafood, and chicken). It was here that we ate lunch and indulged quite shamelessly in the steaming pan of paella while observing the bustling activity just a few feet away on the beach.
Hoping to walk off a bit of our lunch, we strolled down to the waves and walked among the crowds of people swimming and sunbathing along the Mediterranean. On our way back, we walked alongside multiple vendors selling every imaginable tourist item, from children’s toys and beach towels to hookahs and jewelry. What caught our eye were the women offering to braid hair to anyone who passed by. Eventually, we were convinced and stopped for hair wraps. To our surprise, this encounter turned out to be one of our most rewarding contacts for our project thus far.
While braiding our hair, the women spoke to one another in a language we could not understand and appeared to be of African descent. During small talk, one woman inquired about our home and purpose in Valencia. We explained that we were from the United States and asked about her origins. She told us she was from Guinea Bissau, and then asked if we had ever heard of her nation. We continued to ask a few questions about her family and her time in Spain, and soon found ourselves being introduced to another man working at the table behind us.
He, too, seemed intrigued by the American girls willing to ask about his life and his homeland. After we asked about his heritage, he began to explain (in very clear Spanish) that he had moved with his mother and sister to Valencia from Senegal, where his father still resides. When asked if he visits his country, he responded with excitement and enthusiasm. He visits quite frequently and is obviously very passionate about his roots and his family in Senegal.
We walked away from the beach once again astonished by the sheer luck of our encounters. How humbly to speak in a language not our own to a man from another continent and a completely different culture. It seems a person’s pride in his or her home cannot be overcome by language barriers or social constructs such as economic status. We were so grateful for the stories we heard, and the people telling the stories seemed just as grateful for an opportunity to share them.