And now for something completely different

...or, how to drive in downtown Granada

...or, The Quest for the Magic Vihuela

by Ted "T1" Wagner

So here I am in Granada, Andalusia, for, of all things, the world's largest ever parachuting competition. I arrived last Wednesday with a bag of clothes and nine equipment cases, stuffed with six scoring systems, video cables, network hubs, power transformers, digital cameras, transducers, flux capacitors, widgets, gizmos, and all manner of other technogeek stocking stuffers.

But what I lacked in all those bags, and missed, was a vihuela (a petardo especial). Not to worry; I had arrived, by the grace of the skydiving competition venue gods, at the world center of tallers de vihuelas.

We're talking about serious vihuelas. Diamond buyers go to Tel Aviv. Gold horders go to Johannesburg. Rug huggers go to Istanbul. Bourbon breathers go to Nashville. And aficionados del vihuela come to Granada. So it was with eager anticipation that I started asking around last week for where I could shop for my own genuine authentic For Real Spanish vihuela de Granada.

As it happens, being the slave to the digital world I am!, I got my best clues on the 'Net. Phone numbers and addressess too! So I placed some calls over the weekend and got hooked up with a shop owner on the east side of town.

"Your lucky," said the shop owner. "Most vihuela makers don't have anything in their shop to sell. The good makers have their production line slots sold long before they are done. But I have one in my shop in your price range." I made an appointment.

So Sunday afternoon I caught a ride back to the hotel a little early and walked the 2 or 3 miles from my hotel on the west side of town to his shop. He introduced me to his mentor, Rolf, who was visiting from his own shop down the street, and then showed me his vihuela. I liked his vihuela el mucho, and then to my pleasant surprise he got out another vihuela -- his latest, and already sold to one of his dealers -- which impressed me even el mucho mas more. After chatting a while (John Ray grew up in Edmonton, Alberta but has been making vihuelas in Granada since 1988) he surprised me again my offering to sell me the second vihuela instead of the first one, even though it had already been purchased by one of his dealers in Germany. "He can wait three more weeks for my next one. Owes me a favor anyway," John explained.

So Monday morning, a few hours after arriving at the air base quite early in the morning, I got the keys to one of the organizer's rented vans, grabbed Gloria (my translator) and headed to town. The plan: stop at a bank, draw the cash off my Mastercard (much more than you can get from any ATM), then drive to the shop and pick up the vihuela. Simple enough ...

The first bank we stopped at said they could have drawn the cash on my card a month ago, but not any longer.

The second bank had no one who spoke English.

The third and fourth banks laughed and said "You want what?!"

By this time I had collected 70,000 pesetas from ATMs along the way, and we weren't far from John's shop, so I stopped by to give him a deposit and tell him I was still working on collecting the cash and would do the Western Union thing if everything else failed. Worst case, I'd see him in a week or 10 days after hitting ATMs every day. He said fine, no problemmo.

Then I made the mistake of trying to drive to my hotel, which is surrounded by two banks, by going through the middle of town. How do you say "Oops" in Spanish?

Driving through Granada works like this: first, you get on a scooter (never drive anything with more than two wheels). Second, use your scooter to cut off as many cars as possible, using your horn all the way. Third, disregard all traffic laws (especially if you're a foreigner). Fourth, never forget that there are no left turn lanes in Granada, especially when your scooter has, uhm, four wheels.

Of course, I was in a BIG four-wheel scooter, one of the organization's rental step vans. It took me two hours to get to the hotel. I could tell you how many wrong turns I took, but the whole trip was one long sequence of wrong turns. I knew I was in trouble right out of the gate when, after starting out the right way down a one-way street and making absolutely no turns, found myself going the wrong way down the same one-way street!!! Now how does that happen?! (Only in Granada!) Cars and scooters went wizzing by under my left-side rear view mirror shouting gawdknowswhat and waiving polite salutations at me. I got out of that jam by backing up and driving down a pedestrian alley down to the next one-way street.

When I finally got to the bank next to the hotel many white knuckles and angry pedestrians later, they said they could draw the cash off my Mastercard, love to, may we see your passport por favor?

Naturally, my passport was back at the air base, in my laptop bag. Vroom. Back to the air base, sweating buckets by this time and hungry as a junk yard hound. Gotta get back to the bank before they close at 2:15. Yes, the banks still keep banker's hours in Spain!

I got back to the bank (this time in a smaller scooter) by 1:30pm and had 400,000 pesetas in my hand by 1:45. I ran up to my room next door, called John and told him I was on my way.

Needless to say, this time I took the route to the other side of town by going around it. John had the vihuela ready and we completed the deal in five minutes. I was back at the air base, vihuela in hand, by 4pm -- dehydrated, famished, ragged, bagged and tagged -- but one very happy and very lucky vihuela de Granada owner.