Saturday, March 13, 2010

Valencia's Fallas - The Beauty and the Environmental Bane

I have been away from Spain for two weeks and find myself so happy to be back in the land of sun and exuberant people. I am living in Valencia Рhome to the tradition of Fallas Рwhich while considered a one week festival is actually an almost year long process involving the construction of giant themed cartoon-like sculptures. These used to be made out of wood scraps and papier mach̩, and prior to that it is guessed that they were made from the boards that held the candles carpenters used to work by during the dark winter months, which would then be burned after a week long-festival as an offering to and celebration of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

The Fallas is a whole city event and unique to Valencia. Each neighborhood has one or more Fallas organizations or clubs, that design fallas sculptures, so there is pride and camaraderie in the week-long celebration that also includes parades, music and an all out city-wide party. Other parts of Spain do not have the week off, but in Valencia schools, many businesses, and certain streets are closed for the week that includes March 15th to 19th. Local Valencians either love Fallas - enjoying the round the clock firecracker noise with official Mascleta fireworks at 2:00 pm every day for three weeks and huge fireworks displays for four nights starting at 1:00 am in the Turia Park - or they hate it and flee the city in search of quiet. 

While I was out doing errands, going to the market and other grocery shopping, I walked past a few of the mega-Fallas and marveled at the magnitude of each creation. Some of the monumentos can be as tall as sixty feet high and costs can range between five thousand to a million dollars or more for each one. I was struck by the good cheer and excited atmosphere in the city – as if everyone was invited to a private party and having a good time. And just as I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about this community filled celebration and all night partying extravaganza, my cozy bubble was burst wide open, as my husband and I discovered that the gigantic monumentos are no longer constructed out of wood, wax, cork and papier maché (although some of the smaller ones can still be), but rather from polyurethane foam….an environmentalist’s nightmare. 

A nightmare I say because at the end of the week long partying and fireworks, all the three hundred and fifty fallas monumentos are burned – sent up in smoke! The U.S. Polyurethane Foam Association says that polyurethane foam, when burned, releases smoke containing toxic gases including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. 

Hmmm…  I shudder to imagine what the carbon footprint of Fallas might be, not to mention the health effects. 

While I admire the Buddhist quality of creating and destroying the Fallas sculptures like sand mandalas painstakingly created by monks and then swept away, I would hope that the Fallas could be made out of a material, like sand, that when swept or burned would not harm the environment nor the respiratory systems of creatures large and small. 

Can Valencians rise to the challenge of an environmentally friendly Fallas? Let’s hope the city will see that making Fallas Green would benefit everyone in the short and long term. But for this year at least, if you are in Valencia, enjoy the partying and camaraderie, but best not to breathe too deeply on the night of Friday March 19th.

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