Just another day in Spain

To give you a sense of life in Andalucia Spain, I present to you the short journey from my office in Marbella, to the small restaurant where I frequently have lunch.

We begin with the city employee doing some trimming. As we all know, safety equipment—i.e. a face shield and ear protection—are best left sitting off in the distance somewhere.

You can also see that the weed-whacker has no shield itself, so I feel fortunate to have made it past without having my life brought to a sudden end with a stone shot through my forehead.

(What’s actually surprising about this photo, is that there’s not five other city employees watching this guy do his job. My guess is that they’re around the corner somewhere on break.)

Now it’s time to cross the road. But as you can see, the driver of the Spa Experts van felt the zebra pedestrian crossing made an excellent parking place instead. (BTW, this van is parked here nearly every day.)

One last obstacle before arriving at the restaurant—the Mapfre driver evidently forgot what the purpose of a sidewalk is for.

All in all, just another day in Spain.

Internet access in Andalucia

Ben Brooks referenced a Boston Globe article discussing the poor state of internet access in the USA. For example, in Riga, Latvia (Eastern Europe), average internet speeds are 42 megabits per second, while some receive service between 100 and 500 megabits per second. In contrast, the American Comcast service delivers a standard 20 megabits download, with 5 megabits upload.

By comparison to any of those numbers, living in Spain—or at least Andalucia—is akin to living in a third-world country.

Around the year 2000, I had ADSL installed in my Marbella home and office, delivering about 3 megabit download, and 0.5 megabit upload. What’s astounding—truly astounding—is that fourteen year later, the service hasn’t improved at all. And what’s worse, it seems that over time capacity has been oversold, so that, for example, in the evenings the ADSL hardly works at all.

What I want to know is—why?

Is it an infrastructure problem? If so, why hasn’t the infrastructure been upgraded in the past decade?

Is it a commercial problem? Could it be that Telefonica don’t want to see profits eroded by providing better service at a similar cost? My understanding is that they are the infrastructure holders behind all telcos here; Is it a problem of lack of competition?

Is it a political problem? Could it be that Spanish (or local) politicians are simply unaware of what’s happening in the world around them, or don’t feel it’s a priority?

Is it just a regional problem in Andalucia? I’ve seen ads for 50 megabit service in large cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

One gets used to one’s circumstances, and so I didn’t realize how bad we have it until I recently spent two weeks at a university in the United Arab Emirates, where I had access to internet speeds of 80 megabits per second, upload and download. There were almost 4,000 people at the event (the 2013 World Youth Chess Championship), and it seemed that regardless of the number of people connected to the wifi network, those 80 megabits stayed consistent.

During those weeks, I experienced nearly instant streaming of content from iTunes (no dealing with “This video will be ready to watch in approximately 42 minutes”) and batches of photos could be thrown into Photo Stream in near real time. It was great.

Over the past few months, construction crews have been digging all around Marbella. Everybody knows that the works are related to upgrading of gas lines, but there are also rumors that fiber optic cable is being laid, to provide infrastructure for better internet access. Here’s to hoping that’s true.

Anatomy of a Movistar customer service catastrophe

In convenient chronological order:

  1. At the Makalu office in Marbella, we used to have Jazztel 6mb ADSL.

  2. A Movistar salesman offered us 30mb VDSL for only a bit higher cost, if we’d switch from Jazztel. Said he could make the migration completely transparent; one day we’d come into the office, and just have 30mb waiting for us. We accepted.

  3. Movistar installer came a few weeks later, discovered our office is too far from their switch to support VDSL, and said the best he could do was install Movistar 6mb ADSL. And that’s what he installed.

  4. For the next two months, we didn’t have ADSL service in the office, because the original VDSL order was still in the Movistar administrative system, but the technician installed something different (ADSL). Both the commercial and technical departments claimed that the other party was responsible for resolving the situation. When I desperately asked why the two departments couldn’t simply talk to each other to sort this out, they both said that unfortunately that’s company policy — they don’t communicate with each other. The customer has to be in the middle.

  5. On like my 50th call to Movistar, I finally hooked up with someone resembling a human being who cared enough about our situation to personally get involved. She managed to cancel the VDSL order and create an ADSL order, after which our service was switched on.

  6. When the Movistar bill arrived, as expected, we were charged for three months of the more expensive VDSL. Getting that reversed was another nightmare.

  7. On Monday of this week (about a month later), our ADSL stopped working. After pleading with the people in technical support—and going through the whole “reset the router, disconnect the phone, blah blah routine”—they agreed to send out a technician. Technician arrived Tuesday and discovered that Monday morning, for some unknown reason, somebody in Movistar switched our account from 6mb to 10mb—a bandwidth our office simply can’t support (and so the ADSL line couldn’t sync.) He made a call, got it switched back, and we were back online.

  8. Today, Wednesday, our ADSL is down again. Probably we’ve been switched back to 10mb. Thinking about calling tech support and starting the ball rolling again just makes me want to cry.

Problems with Movistar ADSL

For years we had Jazztel 6Mb ADSL here in the Makalu office in Marbella. About two months ago, we were informed by Movistar that if we’d switch, we could get their new 30Mb VDSL for about the same cost.

Not only that, but we could switch in a process called “Portabilidad”, requiring us to do nothing at all. Just sign a paper, wait a few weeks, and then boom—we should have 30Mb!

We signed, and sure enough, a few weeks later, a Movistar technician showed up at the door, router in hand, ready to make our VDSL installation. After 15 minutes of working, we learned it was all too good to be true:

Unfortunately, your office is too far from the Movistar switch to support VDSL, so the best I can do is install 6Mb ADSL.

Great—the switch was for nothing; we’d simply be changing from Jazztel 6Mb to Movistar 6Mb. Oh well, at least we’re not going backwards.

But then, we did go backwards.

After restarting the Movistar router, our ADSL speeds would always degrade after a short period of time to these abysmal figures as reported by SpeedTest—Grade F (slower than 86% of everybody else in Spain):

So I call Technical Support, and am told:

Yes, you’re on reduced speed. The reason is that there’s a VDSL order open, and until that’s administratively changed to ADSL, we can’t properly configure your line. You have to call the Sales department to get that order changed.

So I call the Sales department, and am told:

Yes, you ordered VDSL but the technician installed ADSL. So it’s up to the Technical Support department to change the order. There’s nothing we can do.

Over a period of three weeks, I’ve had this conversation with the two department four times.

Yesterday I asked the obvious question to both departments:

This whole switch from Jazztel to Movistar was based on a promise you couldn’t deliver on. Now, I’m in a situation in which we can’t work in the office and I’m listening to two Movistar departments pointing the finger at each other. Instead of me being in the middle, CAN’T YOU TWO DEPARTMENTS JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER AND SORT THIS OUT?!?

Unfortunately, I’m told, that’s not possible; the departments do not have the means of getting together and fixing a problem like this.

So this is absolutely surreal. The ADSL is so bad in the office we can’t work, and I have reached a complete dead-end in terms of being able to resolve it.

Economic news from Marbella—good or bad?

Our office is located in the “industrial” side of Marbella; an area which is separated into two distinct “zones”, divided by the main road that runs through town. We’re located in the “lower” zone, between the main road and the beach. The majority of businesses are located on the other side of the road in the “upper” zone.

A few years back, property owners here were informed by the town hall that the city of Marbella had reached an agreement with a foreign investor to build a new mega port—capable of hosting huge cruise ships—right here in the lower part of the industrial zone. (Here’s a YouTube video of how the massive project was envisioned. Notice that the most common car here in the future will be Ferraris!)

Clearly, this was great economic news for the city of Marbella, and potentially great economic news for us real estate owners, depending how we would be compensated for our properties.

During the next few years, as expected, there was very little buying, selling or serious renovation of any of the commercial buildings in this area, given the knowledge that at some point in the near future this entire zone would be leveled to make room for the new port.

Recently, though, there’s been rumors of delays in the port project and potential contractual issues with the city. These rumors took on some credibility when I noticed somebody had taken out a new lease on an entire building and completely cleared it out—effectively unifying six independent offices. That somebody turned out to be Peugeot, who decided to move their presence in the “upper” zone to directly across the street here in the “lower” zone.

Here’s a before and after:

Judging by the quality and extent of the build-out work they undertook this was a serious investment for the car company, and so I’m guessing they know something that gives them confidence they’ll be able to stick around for a while.

In a time when positive economic news is extremely rare here in southern Spain, it’s certainly good to see a company like Peugeot make a big investment. On the other hand, this could be bad news in the larger sense that we’re probably unlikely to see a new port in Marbella.

Bodega Marcelino Serrano

We were recently invited to attend the Christmas lunch of the “Hockey Alcalá” mountain running team, at the Bodega Marcelino Serrano in Alcalá la Real, in the Jaén region of Andalucia.

In addition to a great day spent with family and friends, it was also a wonderful wine discovery. The bodega is owned by Marcelino Serrano, the father — and now business partner — of none other than Blanca Serrano, one of the top female mountain runners on the planet!


Blanca and her father run the small, artesan winery in Jaén, started some 15 years ago. Today, they have an annual production of only about 15,000 bottles, but the product is high quality and the prices are very economical — between 4€ and 10€ per bottle!


Before leaving, I purchased a case of the Marcelino Serrano black label red, and the Blanca Maria rose Cabernet-Sauvignon. When I asked Blanca where I can purchase their wine in the future, she said I’d need only email her, and they’d ship wines to us by courier.


What a great find — fine, artisan wines, economically priced, and delivered conveniently!

Be sure to check out the Bodega Marcelino Serrano.

What’s better than an office on the beach?

An office on the beach and next to El Tinglao — perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Marbella, Spain. Fresh fish, barbecued meat, and creative mediterranean dishes are served up daily on the scandalously priced 8€ lunch menu. We’re pretty darn lucky here at Makalu Interactive, to have become friends with Emilio, the owner and chef extraordinaire at the El Tinglao restaurant.















Spain not interested in productivity

Spainish president Rodriguez Zapatero has been meeting with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to discuss reforms necessary to address the battered Spanish economy. One of Merkel’s suggestions, is that Spain adopt policies similar to those in Germany, which tie salary increases to productivity and profit, rather than inflation.

That suggestion, of course, didn’t go over too well in Spain. In particular, I love this quote from Arturo Fernández, vice president of the CEOE:

“Productivity is more a German interest, than a Spanish one.”

The nightmare that is Vodafone España — Ordering an iPad microSIM

I am about to tell a story that, for me, is simply surreal. If it hadn’t actually happened to me, I probably wouldn’t believe it. It’s about my recent attempt to acquire a microSIM card for my iPad, from Vodafone España. Continue reading The nightmare that is Vodafone España — Ordering an iPad microSIM

Surviving in Andalucia

If you want to survive living in Andalucia, in southern Spain, you’re going to need, in addition to a huge amount of patience, the following:

  • A darn good battery backup for your computers. Every time a cloud passes overhead, our electricity for some reason shuts off — temporarily, for periods of about 10 to 30 seconds. And don’t get one of the ones with an alarm. I generally know perfectly well when the power is out, and don’t need my UPS honking at me in the middle of the night for these short outages.
  • A whole lot of bottled water. This morning as I stood under the shower and turned on the water, I was doused with a new brownish variety of H2O. Seems the local water treatment plant had an accident, and large quantities of magnesium are being deposited into our water supply. We’ve been told the water can be used for “hygienic” purposes, but should not be consumed for prolonged periods. Yeah.
  • A good lawyer. Looks like we’ll be having our first get together with our brand new neighbors in court, as they’ve decided they don’t like the remodeling we did to our apartment four years ago. What a way to start a relationship.

I find it surprising that we have such spectacularly poor infrastructure here, given that just down the road you’ve got the White House replica of King Fahn from Saudi Arabia, where, until he passed on, he would come to visit every other year and spend a million Euros a day during the Summer months. Can’t imagine him putting up with brown water, and flaky electricity. (Then again, maybe he had his own water and electricity systems…)

Anyway, good food, good wine, (mostly) friendly people, and 340 days of sunshine a year go a long way to making up for such inconveniences, but still.

Cultural Differences?

My friend Neal, who lives in the United States, broke his finger recently, and was telling me about his treatment. I was kinda shocked at the contrast with respect to my own treatment, living in Spain, when I recently broke my toe.

Neal went to his HMO doctor, who inspected the swollen hand, and immediately recommended him to a “Hand Specialist.” Next day, the Hand Specialist took some x-rays and had Neal scheduled for surgery the very following day. Neal left surgery with a finger full of allen screws to allow for little weekly adjustments to make sure, when all healed up, that his finger is just like new. Neal has weekly follow-ups with x-rays to make sure everything’s on track. And Neal got some pain medicine.

On the other hand…

After breaking my little toe, I went to the local clinic’s emergency room, and waited, and waited, and waited, until I finally got to see the resident student doctor. Without hardly acknowledging my presence, he sends me off for x-rays. Thirty minutes later, I’m back in the office, the doc’s still busy studying something obviously much more important than me on his desk. He looks up at the x-rays, “Yep, it’s broken. In two places. Guess that must hurt.”

Me: “Yeah, doc, so, uh, what do I do? What’s the protocol? Will I ever walk again? Why is my entire foot purple? First time for me here, you know.” Doc: “Buddy tape it to the adjacent toe, and come back if it still hurts in two months.” Me: “Er, uh… Buddy what? Ok, so let’s talk about what that means. How do I manage with a broken toe? Will this affect my diet? Should I place any weight on it? Can I wear shoes? Can I type? Can I…” Doc: “That’ll be all. Sheryl will be in a few minutes to buddy tape it before you leave.” Me: “Uh, hold on.. What about….”

(Doctor leaves the room… Sheryl enters without a word, and starts taping…)

Me: “Hi, Sheryl, first time customer here! 🙂 … 🙁 So… uh, what’s the taping strategy? What kind of angle you going for there? Is that special tape? How long between changes? Biodegrable? Washable?…”

(Sheryl finishes and walks out without a word. Must be going to fetch me the broken-toe literature or something.)

(10 minutes pass. Matt opens the door, looks down the hall. Begins to understand nobody’s coming back…)

So there you go. What a difference. While Neal gets a brand new straight finger, I get a little toe that will forever lean to the right from months of being buddy taped. And I didn’t even get pain meds.

Ok, readers, on the agenda tomorrow: my next trip to this same clinic, where I had to undergo “an analysis”.

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