Parque de El Retiro, sometimes referred to as “the lungs of Madrid”, is a beautiful and huge park on the edge of Central Madrid. A boating lake, many majestic fountains, statues, manicured gardens, tree-lined avenues, and at least two beautiful buildings hosting art exhibits are some of the features I saw today. Maria, Bianca and I strolled into and through the park before sitting on the grass in the shade to watch the world go by. As we did so, the topic of my middle name came up. Again. The other day, booking the bus to Madrid, I had to supply some passport details. There was a sudden rush of hysteria as the girls started laughing, repeating a strange word, “Ha-theen-ta” and crying with laughter. My middle name is Jacinta. Pronounced in my world as Ja-sin-ta. Not this Ha-theen-ta word with an H that you almost have to spit out from the back of your throat. How on earth did an anglo-Australian get a name like this, they asked in between guffaws. I guess my mother liked it? I must ask her!
Since then, not only have I been dubbed Ha-theen-ta, but I have been given a theme song, La Jacinta Mucho Mas (The Jacinta Is The Best). Somewhere in Spain were two rival villages, located up and downhill from each other. The uphill village, Villatripas, decided to build a beautiful statue in a fountain in the village square. When the downhill village, Villa de Arriba, saw this beautiful fountain, they needed to outdo their neighbours. Some poor girl named Jacinta, known for her beauty, was chosen for the job, had her clothes ripped off her, and was placed in the village fountain. A competition was held and both villages agreed that “La Jacinta Mucho Mas”! I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had about this hilarious song. The band who sang it are called La Mandragora, a group of four guys. One of them went to school with Maria’s father, who saw his former classmate in the street oneday years later and called out to him. The singer did not recognise her father, who introduced himself, and was told “No! You cannot be! He was a very beautiful boy!”. I had a stomach ache from laughing so much.
After a busy day of city strolling, shopping, visiting the Bedouin tent exhibit in Palacio Cristal (the Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro) and a sculpture exhibit a short walk away at the equally beautiful Velazquez Palace, dinner was in yet another beautiful al fresco dining area of restaurants lining a central park. As we sat sipping our sangrias and eating our tapas, a number of different people approached our table. The first was a young guy selling socks. He spoke at length to the girls who listened politely before declining a sale. As he walked away they translated that he has to sell socks because he lost his job three years ago and he has children to feed. We called him back and I purchased a pair of socks for Maria’s father. The next person to approach was an elderly man wheeling a cabin-sized bag and holding a book. He is a poet who has already sold 3,000 copies of his book and wanted to recite some poetry to us in the hope that we might purchase the book. Again we declined and he wheeled his case to the next table. The third and final guy was probably in his late 50s or early 60s and he leaned in to us, speaking at some length during which I heard “medico” and “caro”. Maria finally agreed to give him some small change. He walked on to the next table, who “shooed” him away. His story was that he has been begging for five years and last week was diagnosed with brain cancer. He has the option of having an operation but he decided that he doesn’t want to have his head cut open and he therefore only has a short time to live. Who knows if it is true, but either way it is a sad and undignified situation. When I presented the socks to Maria’s father tonight, as she explained how they came about, her mother suggested that Spain is filled with people like this now, as the economy is suffering so much.
The Spanish health system has been the first to face cuts and privatisation under the current government, who probably lost power in yesterday’s election results. Second to face cuts has been the education system. Homelessness and unemployment have risen and many families are struggling to survive. The national unemployment rate sits at around 23%. Yesterday’s national election highlight was the landslide victory in Barcelona of a relatively new party which developed out of left-wing activism (indignado) fighting against home evictions and promising to distribute the city’s wealth.
According to my friends, corruption is rife in Spain with many politicians under investigation or in jail. Most recently one very high level politician who at one stage headed the International Monetary Fund, was arrested for corruption involving billions of dollars which must have involved many of his political colleagues, all of whom are now denying any knowledge of anything he said or did. He is unique in the prosecution system, which seems to focus almost entirely on lower level players, as the higher levels appear to be protected. My friends say that “when we were in Cambodia, we recognised a lot of the corruption because it is just like our country”. Yesterday’s election saw a major swing away from the ruling right wing party, many of whom apparently have historical connections to General Franco. Opposition parties will likely be able to form a coalition, removing power from the main two parties, both of whom seem to be steeped in corruption and cronyism.
We discussed the difference between struggles in Spain where malnutrition and death caused by poverty are highly unlikely, and Cambodia where such extreme existence is common. One of the biggest lessons Cambodia taught me was that people actually die from poverty. Preventable conditions and diseases are exacerbated by excessive deprivation such that acute-on-chronic suffering results in premature and en-masse death. I used the example of the two children whose mother is dying of AIDS because she has to live where she can find employment, earning $1 per day. This is enough to feed herself, but escaping the stigma and fear she faces in other communities, she is in a remote place where she cannot easily access her HIV medication. She will die soon, thanks to this poverty cycle she cannot escape.
Contrary to the poverty cycle, we live in a bubble where we can – and easily do – visit disregard on the suffering of others. It is so easy from a comfortable and entitled life, to consider “the poor” as irrelevant, insincere, their-own-fault, someone else’s responsibility or various other judgements which remove us from our responsibilities towards the impoverished. In fact, as the most privileged, we are also the most responsible, for working towards improving the world’s condition. Not only do we carry this responsibility, we also must embrace the happiness that we have spades of due to our privilege. No amount of suffering I have ever faced, comes even close to the suffering I have witnessed in the poor world. While I have every right to complain and feel the full sphere of human emotion, I also need to always keep a perspective on my First World Problems. They exist in a very beautiful bubble.