The Spanish Christmas Lottery

This year in the midst of the festive holiday season, as we recover from the Christmas feasts and prepare for the New Year celebrations, I thought I’d make use of this downtime to tell you about Spain’s famous Christmas Lottery-El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad. Commonly referred to as El Gordo (the fat one, in reference to the first prize) this lottery was started in 1812 and is the world’s second oldest continually running lottery.

In other parts of the world the lottery is often not looked upon as a positive thing, and dismissed as a waste of money. In the US, it is often considered equivalent to a giant gambling operation that is often sold to the public under the guise of charity and helping the children. In India, it is frowned upon and believed to be rife with corruption, often used as a conduit to convert ill-gotten gains into legal winnings. With all this awareness and background, I was understandably hesitant to buy into the Christmas Lottery.

However, over time I have come to learn that the lottery in Spain doesn’t carry the negative stigma it does in the rest of the world. In fact, it brings people closer together. Friends, colleagues and even my boss at work explained to me that the Christmas Lottery has become an inherent part of the Spanish culture and tradition.

Organizations typically pick a number and patrons of that organization are encouraged to buy tickets of that number either from the lottery administration or from that organization. The organization may be your employer, local restaurant, bar, gymnasium, corner grocery store, favorite charity, etc. The idea is that if that number wins, you along with your colleagues at work, or friends at the local bar, or workout buddies at the gym, all win and celebrate together. It’s fairly common during Christmas for friends and families to gift each other lottery tickets with the same number as theirs.

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You might be wondering how everyone can buy a ticket with the same number. Well, the way it works is that tickets have a 5 digit number ranging from 00000 to 99999. For each 5 digit number there are multiple series. However, the series have no direct impact on the winnings. They simply allow for the sale of more than just 100,000 tickets. Typically, a single ticket (decimo) costs € 20. However those who prefer not to spend € 20 on a single ticket, can purchase a number of smaller participations through whatever local organization (bar, employer, restaurant, etc.) they choose. For example, a 25% participation would cost € 5 and entitle you to 25% of any winnings on that ticket.

As measured by the total prize payout, the Spanish Christmas Lottery is considered the biggest lottery worldwide. Without getting into the details, the prize structure of the Christmas lottery makes it easier to win some money compared to most other lotteries, and it is commonly believed that the prizes of the Christmas Lottery are well-distributed all around Spain. For example, chances of winning the largest prize (El Gordo) are 1 in 100,000, that is 0.001%, while chances of winning the top prize of the Euro Millions lottery are 1 in 116,531,800 or 0.0000000086%.

Every year, the lottery is accompanied by an eagerly anticipated heart-warming commercial. This commercial from 2014 perfectly illustrates the concept of a common lottery ticket number at your local bar and gives you a peek into the typical celebrations one sees. The ad shows Manuel who didn’t buy a lottery ticket at his local coffee shop (typically referred to as a bar). As luck would have it, that was the winning number. Heartbroken, he enters the bar amidst the celebrating customers to congratulate his friend Antonio, the bar owner. What happens next literally brought tears to my eyes when I watched this ad for the first time, and still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.

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The most elaborate part of the lottery is the drawing, which in itself is quite a sight. Since 1812, the Christmas Lottery drawings have been held every year following the exact same procedure. Held every 22nd of December in a grand theater in Madrid, the drawings are made from 2 large spherical cage-like vessels that contain wooden balls with laser inscribed numbers to prevent any discrepancies in weight.

The larger vessel contains 100,000 balls, each with a unique 5-digit number on it, from 00000 to 99999. The smaller vessel contains 1,807 balls, each one with a prize in euros inscribed on it. The actual drawing is carried out by students of the San Ildefonso school (formerly reserved for orphans of public servants), who announce the results proudly and jubilantly in song. Click here to watch a brief video showing the drawing of a winning number.

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The lucky winners are seen and heard all over the TV and radio, with typical images including delighted winners popping open bottles of cava in celebration. The not so lucky participants take consolation in the much used phrase “your good health is the biggest prize”, or some variation thereof.

We love to participate and be part of the excitement of the event. In years when the 22/12 falls on a weekend, we leave the television turned on all day in the background and enjoy the grandeur of the event. On 2 occasions, we won a refund for the ticket price, but never anything more. So like the rest of the population, we continue to religiously participate. However, we try not to spend too much on it. Buying just a single ticket through my employer allows us to participate in the dream of endless possibilities, and enables us to feel the magic of the Spanish Christmas Lottery.

Before I end this post, I’d like to take a second to wish all my readers and their families a very happy holiday season. I hope everyone had a very merry Christmas and has a prosperous and fruitful new year!

Christmasy weekend in Porto

After a long time, we had a long weekend off from work. Since we haven’t really “traveled” anywhere in a few months, we decided to take advantage of it and flew to Portugal to the beautiful riverside city of Porto (or Oporto).

As I have blogged in the past, we flew there really cheap, courtesy of RyanAir. It is interesting to note that Portugal is in a different time zone from Spain. If you look at a map, you will notice Spain is in line with Britain, Portugal and Morocco and should be on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In fact, it was. However during the 1940s, to show his loyalty to Germany during the Second World War, Spain’s dictator changed the time zone to align with Germany’s.

After we landed, we set our clocks back an hour and set off to our city center apartment. I must mention here that the Honey Bee and I have traditionally been highly skeptical of Airbnb. However, after months of pondering, we decided to try it. We booked a beautiful apartment, right in the middle of the historic district, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The entire building is owned and run by a mother-son duo and features comfortable modern apartments. They even bring a variety of warm fresh-baked breads to your door every morning. For those thinking about visiting, I’d strongly recommend you consider it (Mouzinho 134).

At check-in, we were welcomed with a delicious cup of sweet local Porto wine and given a detailed introduction to the city and its sights. Something I learned that surprised me was that up until 10 years ago, the historic district was in shambles and was overrun by drug traders and gangs. However, the advent of low cost airlines opened up new routes to Porto that brought in hordes of tourists, injecting new life into this part of the city, and rejuvenating the local economy.

During our 2.5 days there we saw, did, and ate & drank a whole lot. However, to simplify things we’ll focus on what we consider musts for visitors. So here’s our list of the Top 5 things to do in Porto:

1) Capela das Almas & Rue Santa Caterina: An unlikely location, the church is located on the bustling and central Santa Caterina Street that is lined with shops and restaurants. The street itself is a great place to hang out, grab a drink in the evening or simply window shop.

When you come upon the church, it is almost by accident since you expect to see another shop or mall or restaurant where it is. Located right in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, it is like a little sanctuary in the midst of all the chaos. The entire outside of the church is beautifully adorned with blue tiles typical of Porto (azulejos) depicting the lives of various saints. From the inside the church was the simplest and most basic we visited, but it is also where I felt the most at peace.

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2) Igreja do Carmo & Igreja dos Carmelitas: These churches are built alongside each other. They are two distinct churches, but form one unique structure. It is interesting to note that the 2 are separated by a very very narrow house, put there to prevent any mixing between the monks and the nuns. The latter was built in the 17th century and the former in the 18th. As can be expected, both churches are grand and ornate from the inside and dwarf visitors. The exterior walls of the Carmo church are also adorned with blue and white azulejos depicting scenes of religious historical importance.

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3) Porto Bridge Climb: Started close to 6 months ago for those of a slightly daring disposition, you climb the arch of the Arrábida Bridge. This bridge was built in 1963 over the Duoro River and connects Porto to the neighboring town of Gaia. It rises to a height of 52 meters and offers a clearance of 70 meters above the river. When completed, its main span of 270 meters was the largest of any concrete-arch bridge in the world.

Our guide Pedro, one of the nicest people you will ever meet, gave us an introduction to the bridge, briefed us on the safety instructions, harnessed us to the safety line and accompanied us up to the top of the bridge. The view from the pinnacle takes your breath away. You see the city on one side, and the estuary where the Duoro River feeds into the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You see the river flowing some 70 meters below you, and airplanes flying overhead. You even see birds flying in formation, swooping underneath the bridge. I would strongly recommend you reserve an evening visit so as to enjoy the sunset from this vantage point.

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4) Dom Luís I Bridge & Cais da Ribeira: Another one of the 6 bridges in Porto, this is a double-decked metal arch bridge over the Douro River that also connects Porto and Gaia. At the time of construction in 1886, its span of 172 m was the longest of its type in the world. While amazing to look at any time of the day, a night time view transports you to another world. At night, the bridge and its surrounding banks come alive with beautiful multicolored lights and lasers.

A walk along the Cais de Ribeira, which literally means the neighborhood on the waterfront, goes hand-in-hand with the river and the bridge. A night time stroll after dinner and drinks at one of the restaurants mentioned below is an absolute must, not just for romantics, but for anyone who comes to Porto.

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5) Livraria Lello: Although the bookstore has existed in various forms in different locations across Porto, this bookstore was built in 1906. It is one of the oldest book stores in Portugal (and probably the world) and is consistently rated among the top bookstores in the world.

You wouldn’t be wrong in wondering why tourists would choose to visit a bookstore? Well, apart from the carved wooden ceiling, the beautiful stained glass roof, and a grand staircase straight out a fairy tale, it just so happens that JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter Series, visited this bookstore often. Turns out she taught English in Porto and this store is reported to be an inspiration for her writing.

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Porto is a beautiful place with lots to see. So while not all the places worth visiting made it onto this list, heres some more to-dos that you might want to consider if you have the time: Praça da Liberdade (Porto sign), Clérgios Church & Tower, Palácio da Bolsa, Porto Cathedral & São Bento Station.

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Restaurants: You will undoubtedly find a lot of great restaurants & bars on TripAdvisor like we did. So instead of an exhaustive list, let me just mention our 2 favorite spots:

  • Wine Quay Bar: A rustic little bar by the riverside with great wines, appetizers, views and ambiance.
  • Mengos: Very local-don’t expect anything fantasy here. Heaven for desserts, local food and other baked delights.

Porto was a fun and memorable trip, and without a doubt we plan on returning there in the near future. If you haven’t visited already, what are you waiting for?

The Dying Computer Saga

At the end of the last post, I promised to share the saga of how my laptop was destroyed. So let’s jump right into it:

I had a Lenovo Ideapad that functioned brilliantly. It was a zippy little machine that never failed to perform. However, where it did fail was the hardware. Within the first year and a half of having it, the plastic frame started to break away from the screen & the hinge. While trying to find a fix online, I found this was a common defect with this particular model. As a quick solution, I duct taped them together and that was that.

What happened next isn’t entirely Lenovo’s fault. A couple of months later, I was in a hurry and tripped over the power cord, which happened to be plugged in. The computer flew from the two foot high coffee table and landed with a loud thud on the floor. Apart from having undone my duct tape repairs, the entire left hinge had also separated from the laptop. The prognosis was not good, but it seemed like the laptop would survive, kind-of.

Nonetheless, the machine still continued to work without a fault. Not wanting to throw away a perfectly functioning computer, I continued to use it for another year or so on the one good hinge. A slight inconvenience, but manageable with a little patience. Eventually (and as can be expected), the second hinge also broke. The machine could no longer serve as a laptop because the screen couldn’t support itself without hinges. So I sat it on a table and propped it against a wall. After 3 years, my laptop was now officially a desktop.

One fine day a couple of months later, the screen failed to turn on. To test the machine, I connected it to the television using an HDMI cord and found the machine still worked. It was only the screen that had failed. The CPU (i.e. the heart of the computer) still worked fine. Determined not to throw away a still somewhat functioning computer, I bought an external monitor.

No prizes for guessing what happened next. When I tried to connect the monitor for the img_20161112_202106first time, the entire laptop failed to power on. We tinkered with it and tried all sorts of things but to no avail. As a last resort the Honey Bee recommended we try opening it and taking a look under the hood to see if it was something obvious. After over 4 years, this Lenovo Ideapad was finally declared dead.

The next big task ahead of me was choosing a new laptop. After what probably amounted to days of research, and multiple shortlists, I finally took the plunge and bought a Lenovo Yogapad. The reviews were good, the price was excellent and the laptop was pretty good to look at. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I expected and also felt sluggish. Sadly, I returned it. Tired from researching, and almost in despair over my inability to choose a good machine, I was about to give up all hope.

Just then, like a ray of hope from heaven, I saw an advertisement for the revolutionary Chromebook. A few days of research and I was convinced this was the right thing for me. dc11For the unitiated, the Chromebook is a laptop made by the same traditional manufacturers (Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Samsung, etc.), but instead of Windows it uses Google’s Chrome browser as an operating system. Google describes it best… “The Chromebook is a new, faster computer. It starts in seconds, and offers thousands of apps. It has built-in virus protection, and backs up your stuff in the cloud.” I’ve had it for over a week now and couldn’t be happier. If you’re thinking of buying one, I’d highly recommend it. Check back here for a detailed review of my Chromebook in the coming weeks.

(We’re back!) Fun Family Visits

First off, my apologies for the long gap. A lot has happened over the last month, (don’t worry, nothing serious) that has prevented me from dedicating time to one of my favorite hobbies-this blog.

Visits from both sides of the family, took up most of my free time. First, the Honey Bee’s brother visited. He spent about 2 weeks with us, and we had a great time. About a week later, my brother took advantage of Thanksgiving weekend and endured 12+ hours of travel time to pay us a visit. He spent 4 days with us, and the time really flew by. We didn’t really do any sight-seeing, given that he had been to Barcelona before. Besides, the objective of his visit was to be with us and we did just that-tab-bg spend quality family time together. The entire experience was a whirlwind that involved a lot of conversation, eating, movies and board games.

The Honey Bee is really big on board games, and I have grown to like them as well. Some of our all-time favorites include Taboo, Scattegories, Battleship, Scrabble and Jenga (I know it’s not really a board game, but its close enough).

Over the course of these visits, one restaurant we visited multiple times and that I strongly recommend is La Flauta. In fact, it is flauta-collageso popular, they even opened a second location (La Flauta II). I however, recommend visiting the original since it has been renovated. Also personally, I find the service and ambience to be far superior. The fare is authentic Spanish tapas (and some Catalan food as well). The food is rich, but the prices are really affordable. Although a lot of what they specialize in is non-vegetarian, my vegetarian friends will still find plenty of delectable options. They don’t take reservations, so be sure to get there early because if you don’t, you might end up having to wait more than an hour to get a table, like we did.

We also paid a visit to the Fabra Observatory located on a mountaintop near Barcelona. Belonging to Barcelona’s Royal Academy of Arts & Sciences, it is the fabre-collageworld’s 4th oldest functioning observatory (1904) and still tracks asteroids and comets. Even though, it was a somewhat cloudy night we did get to use the impressive primary telescope to view a double star. Referred to as Albireo (Beta Cygni), the pair of stars orbit around each other and fall within the Cygnus (swan) constellation. One of the stars was bright yellow, and the other light blue. It was interesting to note that when we saw Albireo with the naked eye, it appeared to be a single star. Only when viewed through a sufficiently powerful telescope can the 2 stars be differentiated. If you do plan to visit, make sure to book in advance since spots fill up quickly. The viewing schedule depends on the day and the time of the year. Also worth pointing out that it gets pretty darn chilly up there, so make sure you’re really well covered up.

Every time my brother visits, it is like Christmas. He brings us our annual dillstock of American goodies. This time, for the Honey Bee that included Fruit Loops Cereal and Mighty Malts chocolates. For our pet bunny, that included a whole bunch of bunny specific treats & toys. For me, that included a delicious jar of dill pickles, 2 six packs of Berry flavored Propel energy water (both of which I haven’t had in more than 7 years) and my much awaited (drum roll) drumroll drumrolldrumrolldrumrolldrumroll Dell Chromebook.

You see, apart from family visiting the main reason I haven’t blogged in the last month is that my laptop was destroyed. It’s a long and tragic story with a happy ending that I’ll share in the next post, but suffice it to say that for now, Vivemasblog is back in business.