Leela’s Transportation Field Note

Aside from the standard modes of transportation available in a city, Spaniards also practice an ancient form of message transportation: the carrying pigeon! Would you like to get a note delivered by a pigeon, or do you prefer e-mail?

Perhaps the most interesting form of transportation occurring in Madrid is not that of people but that of messages. I do not refer here to messages on your Facebook wall or on any other social network or computer, which all travel through cyber links that seem to defy space and time. The method of note transportation I refer to harks back to a time when the great distances between places were not yet breached by satellites, cell phones, and the internet.

What if you needed to send a note to your friend in California before these innovations? How long do you think it would take to walk across the entire country and give them that letter? What if you could fly, though? That would be much faster, wouldn’t it? Until the revolutionary innovation of the carrier pigeon, messages—written with a feather dipped in ink, carried in satchels by messengers on foot, and traipsed across entire countries—had to be delivered by hand directly into the possession of the recipient (usually a queen or a duke or someone very important).

Although modern Spain enjoys all of the efficiency of technology, many people raise carrier pigeons as a hobby. In Spanish, paloma means pigeon, but it also means dove. Perhaps as a result of this, pigeons do not suffer from the same negative reputation as they do in American cities. Believe it or not, people raise carrier pigeons—which they might think of as “messenger doves”—as pets, training them to send messages back home.

Here’s how it works: you raise a special breed of pigeon, feed it well, give it plenty of sunshine and space to enjoy your house or apartment, and you probably should sing to it, too. Remember, though, carrier pigeons only have the ability to return home after being taken to another place. So, for example, if you raise a pigeon at your family’s house and then go visit your grandparents, you can take your pigeon with you and then send a note home to your brother or sister or parents, but they can’t send the pigeon back to you, the pigeon only returns home. That’s why sometimes these birds are also called “homing” pigeons. In Spain, you have several options of how you can take the pigeon from its home to another location, from where you’ll send a note back.

Option 1: place the tank in the trunk of your car or on the backseat while you speed through menacing traffic, praying that a protest hasn’t broken out in one of the main plazas. Political protests usually mount on weekends, as many citizens feel angry about budget cuts on social spending, and they can stall traffic for hours.

Option 2: ride down endless escalators deep into the belly of the city and board one of the shaky steel subway cars that trace ant-like mazes across downtown, making sure to hold onto your pigeons tight with one hand while you grip the floor to ceiling poles with the other. Do not be alarmed if people, thrown by the jolts of the subway’s underground rumbling, come crashing into you.

Option 3: take a slow ride on a bus with the pigeons tucked onto your lap.

Option 4: careen down one-way streets in a taxi cab, making sure not to lift the cover of your pigeon’s cage because the cab probably reeks of cigarette smoke.

Option 5: enjoy a ride with your pigeons on one of the countryside trains that chug through suburbs and carry commuters riding to and from their jobs in the city.

Option 6: spoil your pigeons by taking them on an AVE train, the country’s new high speed rail system, where they can shoot down the tracks even faster than they could fly, at 300 kilometers an hour (pigeons can fly up to 80 kilometers per hour).

Option 7: convince the airlines to let you store your pigeons under the seat, or in the overhead compartment, assuring them that they will certainly be less trouble that the many screaming babies.

Option 8: strap your pigeon cage to the back of a motorcycle as you risk your life zipping down highways clogged with trucks, taxis and sports cars.

Option 9: another risky option, and one which defies the advice of nearly every madrileño, or Madrid citizen, is to place your pigeon cage in a basket at the front of a bicycle, and attempt to cycle your way down narrow, uneven cobble stone lanes with no sidewalks and with cars lining both sides of the street.

Option 10: spare your pigeons the trauma of these other methods and do what most people in the city of Madrid do: walk.

After you get to the new location, maybe a chalet in the countryside, or a friend’s house in Barcelona, or your cousin’s farm, you can write your note, roll it up, put it into a tube, and attach it to your pigeon’s leg. Carefully take your pigeon from the cage, approach an open window, preferably a fourth or fifth story window, and release it into the sunlight. Watch its white wings soar away, knowing that your note will travel back to your house in a timely fashion. It may not be Facebook, but it’s a pretty great way to transport a note!

If you had the chance, would you raise a carrier pigeon? What if you could send a letter all the way to Spain? The record for a pigeon’s home flight is 1,100 miles. Given that statistic, what’s the farthest you could send a note? Could you send it to Spain or is that too far? What would your notes say and who would you send them to?

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