Madrid Another year, another FITUR - Fería Internacional de TurÃsmo, that is. This is an event that brings together 180 countries from around the world. The colours, sounds, aromas and flavours that are mixing at Madrid's macro trade fair facilities are exciting, inspiring and almost overwhelming. Not surprisingly, Spain has an overpowering presence at FITUR and Andalucia - the country's number one destination - stands out.
SOS in this case is not a cry for help, but rather a brand of rice. Anyone who has lived here long enough to search for rice at a Spanish supermarket will know that SOS (say "sos" to rhyme with "toast") is a favourite brand of rice "Made in Spain" - especially for use in the infamous "paella". According to the official SOS group of companies' website, most of the rice exported from Spain leaves the country under their auspices. I recently learned that Andalucia produces 60 percent of the rice consumed across Europe. That's according to our regional public news service, Canal Sur.
Still on the subject of traffic and driving in Andalucia, I must let everyone know that as of this week the Guardia Civil patrol cars are to be equipped with a computer that gives them instant access to information about whether or not a vehicle is properly insured. Millions of uninsured vehicles are travelling on the roads across this country and it is well known that many of them are owned by drivers who are irresponsible in other respects as well. The Traffic Department in Spain is very active in taking one measure after another to do their part to ensure our safety on the country's roads
Is it just me - or has driving on Andalucian roads actually improved over the past ten years? Yes, I know that accident statistics are improving.
Earlier this week I spent half of one intriguing night at the local emergency room. Fortunately, for once, I didn't have to worry about whether or not I was guilty of abusing the regional healthcare system. My youngest child had Chicken Pox and the doctor at the local health clinic feared it could be affecting her eyes. She had therefore sent us to the nearest regional hospital for a more thorough exam, something that could not wait until morning. As we sat waiting for our turn - at near midnight - I couldn't help observing the jungle of children waiting at that hour of the night.
Listen up everybody. Our regional blood banks are calling for donors to provide lifegiving blood after a holiday season that traditionally drains the accounts - due to traffic accidents among other things. Every province throughout Andalucia has centres for donating blood, as well as mobile donation centres that make regular stops in towns and cities. If you don't know where to go, stop by your nearest health centre to find out.
All eyes are on the Mediterranean diet. As everyone knows, it is supposed to be one of the best and healthiest in the world. How is it then that Spain is competing for one of the highest obesity rates in the world - with Andalucia topping Spain's list of heavyweights, particularly when it comes to kids. So this morning I read an amazing report in the Diario Sur newspaper.
Today thousands of children across our region go back to school after the holidays. Can you believe that 37% of state school students in Andalucia quit school before receiving even their most basic credentials? That is one of the highest drop out rates in Europe and something the Andalusian regional government is seeking to change. At the end of last year the most recent PISA study came out. That is an international study of education results in dozens of countries around the world.
Travelling across Andalucia this holiday season - and yes, it is still officially holiday season until the last of the Three Kings has left the territory - I was reunited with my fascination for place names. Wherever I travel around the world I am intrigued, and often amused, with the names that flash by me on road signs, and here is no different. Southern Spain's Arabic roots show up in so many names. Take Málaga province's Benalmádena, for instance, with Ben meaning "son of" and "al madena" denoting a "miner". Or how about the popular "Gudal"? That originates from the Arabic for valley.
It looks like Andalucia has seen the New Year in with style. Would you believe that some 70,000 people said goodbye to 2007 around the Rocio Shrine in Huelva? It seems that the area's capacity to handle large groups has turned the pilgrimage trail and facilities into a popular place for entire clans and groups of friends to go spend New Year's Eve and the first few days of the year. However, at midnight last night, all eyes were on Jaen this year as our regional public television and radio - Canal Sur - covered the 12 strokes of the clock from that emblematic Andalusian city.