Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Andalucia is beautiful. We´re in a little beach town, surrounded by palm trees and lush Sierra Nevada mountains, with crystal-clear aqua Mediterranean coastline stretching to the horizon.
We just met Alexandra, the woman who lives on the farm, and although we haven´t been to her place yet, we definately like her.
She´s a total hippie, with long dark flowing hair; exactly the kind of woman who you´d expect to move to the Spanish Mediterranean to grow tropical fruits and raise three kids on a farm without electricity. She has a kind smile and a cute French accent.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
We're leaving today for this rustic little farmhouse in the Granada province. We'll probably arrive tomorrow and we'll return to Madrid on Monday or Tuesday.
It's great to know there's a couch we're welcome to sleep on, anytime, in Madrid. Without it, I think Kim and I would both have gone nuts. (Thanks Matt!)
Since there isn't electricity where we're going, I'm not sure if I'll be able to post to this blog until we arrive back in Madrid -- maybe yes, maybe no, depending on whether there's an internet cafe in the neighboring village.
On an unrelated note, here's some thoughts on my culinary exploration of Spain:
- while the sandwiches are plain (they lack lettuce, tomatos and other U.S. classics), they DO feature top-notch jamón. But what else would you expect from a country that seems to revolve around ham?
- the paella is well-spiced, though the shellfish is still in its shell, which turns eating shrimp into a violent, mutilating act
- 99 cent store-brand Nutella knockoff and1 euro wedges of brie
- Spicy ice cream! It's called "Maya" ice cream, which is strange because Mayan culture is Central American, and it's chocolate with various spices (also reminiscent of Central America?)
Monday, April 28, 2008
Success!! We found an avocado farm in Granada that's happy to take us in. It's run by a French-Polish couple with three kids, and its totally rustic: there's no electricity and we sleep in little yurts. We'll be helping them paint a shed and prune their trees; in exchange, they'll serve us Mediterranean food and give us a temporary home. We leave tomorrow.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
We're really diving into the cultural shine of the city -- I've spent the entirety of the last two days at art museums, taking in Raphel, Picasso, Dalí, Velasquez, Ribera, Rembrant, Goya and El Greco, learning about space, dimension, lighting, the size and speed of brush strokes, and how to see influences of several art movements on a single canvass.
Kim spent today jogging a 12K with a pan-European crowd.
We're not sure what's next on the agenda. Here are our most compelling options, in no particular order:
- Go to Croatia, where the cost of living is cheaper
- Go to Amsterdam to celebrate Queen's Day, a major annual festival, on Wednesday
- Go to a farm in southern Spain
- Go to a farm in Italy
- Stay in Madrid and get jobs teaching English
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Yesterday Kim went golfing while I walked around Puerta del Sol (the historic square), we met at the apartment for a stir-fry lunch, and then she, Matt and I went to "University City" -- which boasts a total of more than 100,000 students -- for an outdoor concert.
I've never seen a university that officially sponsors the type of concert/party we ended up at yesterday; the cafeteria sells beer on tap and has full shelves of liquor.
We wandered away from the crowds, met up with Matt's best friend Abe and girlfriend Nicoletta, and went out for tapas in the evening.
A few more quirks about Spain I've learned -- wine is literally cheaper than water; you can find bottles of red wine for 0.55 euros. If you "splurge" on a 4-euro bottle, you can get really good stuff.
Also, two of the best museums, El Prado (12th century through 19th century European art) and the Reina Sofía (20th-century art featuring Picasso, Monet, and Dalí) are free once a week -- the Reina Sofía is free Saturday afternoons and El Prado is free Sunday mornings. Perfect! We're cooking paella and heading to the Reina Sofía today.
Unlike traveling in countries where no tourist knows the language (like Thailand or Czech Republic), the people of Spain really expect you to speak Spanish, and get a little snooty if you don't.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
We caught an 11 p.m. bus out of Málaga that arrived in Madrid at 6:30 a.m. When we pulled in, the cops told us that we can't take my bike on the subway until 10 a.m., when rush hour ends.
We tried to sleep at the bus/subway station for those intermediate 3.5 hours, but the cops put an end to that, too, so we started walking across the city.
By 10 a.m., we'd drowsily trotted halfway across Madrid, and caught the subway for the other half.
We arrived in front of Matt's apartment around 10:30 a.m. and waited on the street until 2:30 p.m. for one of the roommates to come home to let us in. As we waited, Kim sat on the sidewalk drawing plants and napping; I finished my fourth audiobook of this trip, Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, and both started and finished my fifth audiobook, Robinson Crusoe.
BUT NOW WE'RE FINALLY HERE!!!!!!
I feel so relieved and refreshed -- we have a nice, secure stable home with a shower, bed and kitchen!
We don't know what our plans are. We've given up on preconceptions about what we want this trip to look like. Preconceptions can be stressful. We just want to have fun.
"You must let go of the life you had planned, in order to have the life that is waiting for you ...."
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
So, here we were in Málaga, and it was hard to believe that life could be bad. The sun was shining, the beach was beautiful, and we were basking in the Andalucian coast.
This place is built on tourism, and is priced accordingly. The cheapest hostal is the U.S. dollar equivalent of $35 a night -- FAR more than we can afford. We´d been budgeting with the idea that 4 weeks would be expense-free on a farm, which is no longer the case. To save money, we decided to sleep on the beach.
We set up "camp" at around 10 PM, while there were still quite a few people roaming around. We chained our bikes to a sturdy rail, put our valuables inside our sleeping bags, and stuck our bags between us (so that we were lying in a row -- Kim, bags, me).
In the middle of the night, Kim sat up, looked over, and saw that all her bags were missing. "Oh shit!" she shouted. As soon as the words left her mouth, she saw a man crouched down about 12 feet away begin running into the distance.
After he left, we saw that the bags were still there, but had been moved down the beach. A look inside the bags showed that they had obviously been rummaged through, but most things were still inside -- and our valuables, like our mp3 players and passports and money, were with us inside our sleeping bags.
We put the bags back in the middle of us, strapped everything together (so it would be much more arduous to lift one), and laid back down. Needless to say, neither one of us got much rest after that.
When sunrise finally broke, I walked down the beach to the pole where we´d locked our bikes. Uh-oh.
¨Do you want the news now, or later?" I asked Kim.
¨What news?" she asked.
¨We have a serious problem ... One of our bikes is missing," I told her.
My bike had been secured with a steel lock, but Kim´s had been chained using a cable lock, which a good pair of bolt-cutters can slice through.
"Yeah," I replied.
She took the news well. ¨What´s done is done,¨Kim said. ¨No use getting upset about it. I feel like I got good use out of that bike while I had it.¨
So, that brings us to now. The adventures of Kim and Paula, wandering in Spain. We don´t know what we'll do next. We do know one thing: we don´t want to sleep in this town another night.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
We came here with the hope of staying on a farm owned by a couple that speaks only Spanish, but after we arrived, we got an email from the farm owners saying we had changed our plans too many times (which is 100 percent accurate) and he accepted an offer from travelers who were more committed. Kim and I are tired and dirty and will delay ¨dealing with this¨ situation by first going out for tapas; then we´ll camp somewhere along the beach tonight (though this is certainly a city, so I wonder how that´s going to work! We´ve had great luck camping in countrysides so far).
We´ve recieved an offer from a woman on Couchsurfing.com who says we can stay on her farm in Liguria, Italy, so ..... will we be in another country in the next 2 or 3 days? Maybe!
Monday, April 21, 2008
I stayed in town with our bags as Kim and I ¨shuttled¨ on foot, 12 km roundtrip, to and from La Yedra to pick up our bikes.
As I was walking down the road, the cops stopped me to see what I was doing. I was amazed at how much I was able to communicate in Spanish!
Speaking only Spanish, I told them that my friend is in Baeza with our bags and I´m walking to La Yedra, where I spent the past two nights, to retrieve my bike.
Then in response to a series of the officer´s questions, I told them I have a road bike instead of a mountain bike, we´ve been to Madrid, Toledo and here, we´re thinking about taking a bus to Jaen later today.
The cop asked to see my passport and asked why ¨Nepal¨ is written on my passport when the citizenry is U.S.; I explained that the rest of my family lives in Nepal but my parents and I live in America.
In response to further questioning from the police, I said in Spanish that I work as a journalist, I told them my monthly income (yes, they asked!), and explained to them that famous television journalists earn more than newspaper writers.
The cops copied down my passport information, told me to write down the names of my parents, and then let me go, telling me to enjoy my visit to Spain.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Quirks about Spain, compiled by Paula and Kim from a tent in an olive garden one night:
- in the Spanish food pyramid, ¨olives¨ is its own food group -- seriously -- and it´s close to the bottom of the pyramid, just one step above grains, and parallel with vegetables
- all the houses have names, but stores (even the village grocery) aren´t labeled. Unless you peek through the window and see the fruit stands, you have no idea it sells food.
- Love of ham! There´s ham everywhere, in every meal, all the time!
- every small village is distinguishable by its dilapidated old church, which towers overhead and centers the town
- there are iron gates around every house door; a curtain covering every doorway
- narrow winding brick and stone city streets and adobe rooftops
- brilliant bright colors -- the decor is a mix of vibrant orange, yellow, red, green and blue walls and floors, sometimes all in the same room
- Los Dos Besos -- everyone, even kids, greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks
- REALLY over-dramatic soap operas are shown in the early evening
- the whole country shuts down from noon to 4 p.m. ..... nothing is open
- Tapas are free! In America, going out for tapas is a plush dining out experience. Here, they come free -- often in all-you-can-eat quantities -- with the purchase of a small cheap beer!
- little kids hang out at all the businesses and run small tasks, like doing the price-check on an item at the checkout stand
Alejandro, a single father, is nice and has given us oversized pajamas and unlimited cups of tea. The family speaks Spanish, English, French and some Arabic.
We will leave Alejandro´s tomorrow and stay with his friend in Jaen, about 50 km from here, surrounded by forested hilly national park. She doesn´t speak English, which will be great for our Spanish acquisition (as opposed to inquisition).
We MIGHT bike to Jaen, but frankly, I just don´t feel like getting on that damn bike. I´d rather walk.
Reflecting on the bike trip, here are the lessons I´ve learned:
1. Avid cyclists, especially hardcore cycle-tourists, have fun on heavily-trafficked roads. Even Kim once cycled on the shoulder of the U.S. interstate, I-90 north through Wyoming.
I, however, do not want to ride on heavily-trafficked roads. As much as I´d love to say I´ll try anything twice, there are simply some things I don´t want to ever do again. Cycling alongside semi-trucks is one of them.
2. Spain has a great bike route in the north, Camino del Santiago, that´s too rainy to ride now but perfect in June or July. I´d like to return to ride it. But I have a new rule that I will strictly adhere to -- I will only ride on popular, accepted bike routes. Not on rural two-lane highways that lack the sight of other cyclists but include massive trucks.
3. Learning Spanish is easier when playing with little kids.
4. Ten weeks is barely long enough to scratch the surface in Spain. There are so many nooks, corners and crannies to this beautiful country .... it would take years to explore it all.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
- left Jose Migual and Isabel´s house
- took train to Andalucia, where there is beautiful southern countryside
- found a perfect road for biking, with hardly any traffic
- biked, pictureque
- torrential rain as we set up tent; all our stuff is soaking and muddy, including our rain gear, jackets and sleeping bags.
- began biking toward La Yedra, where there´s a farm that we´ll stay at, owned by a guy named Alejandro
- within the first 5 kilometers, got seperated from Kim
- waited, waited
- re-traced 5 k back, and then 5 k forward, looking for her, to no avail
- biked on to La Yedra, hoping she had passed me and was already there
- reached La Yedra, no sign of Kim
- Didn´t have directions to Alejandro´s farm (the directions were with Kim), so I started knocking door-to-door, speaking broken Spanish, hoping someone would know where his house is OR would have internet access which I could use to look up his phone number in my email account
- No one can help; several families tell me they don´t have a home computer and don´t know Alejandro.
- Rain pours, pours down
- I seek shelter under a tree and stay there for 2-3 hours. Fingers are so cold they´ve lost all feeling.
- It starts to get dark.
- This town has no grocery store, no gas station .... nothing but fields and a couple of houses.
- I start planning for the night. Begin rationing my food. Figure in the worst case scenario, I´ll sleep there overnight, and in the morning, if the sun comes out, bike to Baeza, the nearest town with internet, to see if Kim has written
- After a few hours, the sun peeks out .... I walk 6 km to Baeza
- find Kim, who is also biking aimlessly through the streets, looking cold and tired
- we go to internet cafe and call Alejandro, tell him we´re cold, tired and starting to get sick, ask for a ride
- still at internet cafe, writing this. So happy to have shelter and warmth.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
But not in the way you´re thinking.
We asked the woman who owns the cybercafe if we could sleep in her establishment after it closes. She pointed us toward a casino and told us to ask the casino owner if we could sleep at his place.
He said no, but one of his customers, a guy buying lottery tickets, offered to take us in. We got a good vibe from him, so we went with it.
Turns out he´s a sweet, generous guy with a lovely family who provided us with a warm shower, hot soup and cozy bed. Both he and his wife , Jose Miguel and Elisa, are cops. (Hence, as Kim puts it, we got taken in by the police.) They have two kids, age 14 and 11; the elder of the two is going through Spain´s version of an adolescent ¨emo¨ stage, complete with black wrist cuffs and a My Chemical Romance obsession.
So we´ve changed SIX tires -- count em, six! -- in the last four days.
And we both agree ..... this is starting to suck.
This sounds like an obvious statement, but the roads here are nothing like Colorado´s roads. At home, a bike ride means cruising down a country road where traffic is sparse, slow and consists of passanger vehicles.
Here, the traffic speeds its Autobahn, and the backroads are covered with blind hills, blind corners and narrow -- if any -- shoulders.
Cycling here means riding downhill around a completely blind corner without a shoulder while a semi-truck whizzes by at 100 km per hour, creating a side wind that throws your bike off balance.
Kim, our resident cycle-touring expert -- she once pedaled from Colorado to Michigan -- declared days ago that she hates this. She said she´s only doing it because I want to. And I only wanted to because (1) it was the origonal intent of the trip, and (2) I keep telling myself that if we keep persisting, it´ll become fun.
Yesterday, both of us took spectacular falls (mine was behind a semitruck, though fortunately it was in town on a local street, where traffic was going slow and there wasn´t a car in the path of my fall), and fixed ANOTHER flat tire. We´re physically fine but mentally exhausted.
We decided to pull into Villasequilla, a town so small its not even on the map, and raided the candy store for comfort.
At that point, I decided life is too fragile to do something that´s not fun.
"I´ve been listening to the book The Alchemist on my ipod," I told Kim over ice cream. "It talks about the importance of listening to omens."
"And?" she asked.
"We´ve had 6 flats in 4 days. The airline almost lost my bike. And a black cat has crossed my path twice."
An old lady gave us directions to a park where she said we could sleep, but it turned out to be a playground -- unsuitable for snoozing. We biked a few kilometers south and took a dirt road deep into an olive farm, where we pitched a tent behind some trees and slept as rain fell overhead.
The next morning we started the 22-km bike ride to Mora, hoping to catch a bus from there to Andalucia. Unfortuanately, the winds were howling, and our bikes kept blowing off course -- especially as trucks whizzed by.
I turned to Kim. "We could backtrack 2 kilometers, or keep going another 20."
She shrugged. Neither of us wanted to quit.
So we flipped a coin.
True to the omen, the coin told us to backtrack to Villasequilla.
We asked a girl on the street about train schedules out of town; she said a train appears once a day, at 5:30, and goes to Aranjuez. We spent all day sitting around waiting for 5:30 to appear, but unfortunately - with no actual train "station," and with no signs or schedules to guide us - we were waiting on the wrong side of the tracks. The train passed by without stopping.
It rained overhead as we watched the only train out of town disappear into the distance. To our left, a shephard and his dog led an enormous flock of sheep at the edge of the fields along the opposite side of the track.
So we´re here for another cold, rainy night. We´re going to ask the owner of the cybercafe if we can sleep on her floor in exchange for cleaning the place. Hopefully she says yes. If not, we´ll return to some field out of town and catch a bus to Toledo tomorrow. There´s only one bus that runs out of town each day, and it leaves at 3 p.m., headed for the ancient Spanish capital.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The sights from this morning was what I imagined a bike trip to Spain to be. We took small, windy backroads without much traffic that stretched across vast expanses of green fields, linking small Spanish village to small Spanish village, each one marked by an ancient church steeple.
We cycled 30 kilometers and stopped in a little town to eat lunch and wash our hair and clothes in the bathroom sink. Kim drew plants while I played on a nearby swingset.
Then we tried to get back on our bikes .... that´s when the afternoon took its first of many turns. Kim´s tire -- the same one she patched yesterday -- went flat. We tried to repair the tube, but it wasn´t salvageable. She put in her spare tube. That too went flat, and all attempts to patch it went in vain.
We sat on the sidewalk all afternoon, wondering what to do. We were surrounded by crops; there was nowhere but a small ditch to sleep in. We thought we might sleep there, and tomorrow Kim would stay with the bikes while I backtrack 30 km to the nearest cycle shop we know of.
Then a local family walked by and asked if we needed help. They were the first people we´ve randomly encountered who speak English!! We explained our situation and they drove us to a mechanic shop at a nearby town, where Kim bought a tire tube and extra patch kit; then they invited us in for dinner, showers, and a bed to sleep in. I´m writing this blog from their computer.
The couple, Francisco and Isabel, are SO wonderful; both are high school teachers who specialize in tourism and hospitality. They gave us a detailed road map to take with us, cooked an incredible dinner, and welcomed us into their warm, comfortable home.
I love sleeping outdoors -- watching the moon wax, hearing the crickets -- but when you´re cold and stranded and eating stale bread and contemplating sleeping in a ditch, you really, really appreciate a nice home! That´s partly why I love to travel on a shoestring .... it makes you really appreciate the daily comforts you take for granted.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Kim and I are in Illescas now ....
On Day One we spent most of the day hauling our bikes up and down at least a dozen flights of stairs at three Metro stations, en route to the southernmost station out of Madrid. It was a three or four hour ordeal, during which I managed to pop my front tire tube in the process. We stopped for a late lunch at a Moroccan dive filled with about 25 Moroccan men and no women. They eagerly insisted on changing my tire and walking us to a gas station, where we used Kim´s converter to fill the tube.
It was late by the time we began riding, we went 10 kilometers before it was dusk and we slept in an abandoned shack by the side of the road near Grinon. We awoke the next morning to the sound of the voices of the farmers who own the shack .... they stood really close to us, talking, and even drove their tractor by us, but never saw us. I told Kim it was a ´Jedi mind trick´ .... since they weren´t expecting to see us, they didn´t.
Yesterday was FREAKIN WINDY and hella terrifying; the winds were so strong my front handlebars would jerk side to side and I felt like I had no control over the bike´s direction .... 3 feet to the left means a certain death, with cars speeding by at 100 kilometers an hour. We slept in a park in Yuncos at night, and backtracked to Illescas today to find internet so we could GoogleMap a less-traffic-y road, if possible.
We´re ultimately heading to La Yedra, though it looks like it´ll take much longer than expected .... our slow butts went only 30 kilometers yesterday. We wake up around 10 a.m., pack the tent by 11, stop to hand-wash our bike shorts and eat lunch and look at maps and mess with our seat positions and shoes and other bike components, we want to start setting up camp by no later than 7 pm each night before it gets dark .... all of it takes time away from biking, and I imagine, after today´s GoogleMapping and a stop at the grocery store and stopping to hand-wash our bike shorts, we´ll probably go 40 km today .... maybe 50 km because there´s relatively little wind today. We´ll see.
Friday, April 11, 2008
The plan is to leave Madrid tomorrow on our bikes, head to a farm run by a guy named Alejandro, stay there for a week, spend two weeks ambiguously biking through the south (maybe pedal to Cordoba and Seville .... we have no solid destination for that time). After that, we'll return to Madrid to greet my parents when they fly in on May 7, spend a week with them, and then return to the south, by bus, to spend four weeks on a Spanish-speaking-only farm in Málaga. We'd leave the farm June 10, bus to Germany, and spend a few days there before Kim flies out June 15 and I fly out June 17.
In the meantime, we're staying with Kim's friend Matt and his two Spanish roommates, Juan Carlos and Leida, in an apartment in Madrid's financial district. Hanging out with them feels like the study abroad I never had -- its a nice insight into the day-to-day life of studying and working in Madrid as a young twentysomething. We've visited several parks and eaten at some of their favorite tapas bars, but for the most part, we're avoiding "touristy" attractions -- museums and so forth -- and focusing on the residential experience.
As is always the case with traveling, something as simple as going to the grocery store can be an adventure, leading you down narrow cobblestone paths with hundreds of balconies overhead and a centuries-old basilica on the corner. Normally when traveling, we can relax and go with the flow, but putting together a bike trip -- where specifics and details matter -- makes it a bit more challenging. I spent the better part of a day trying to find isobutane for the camp stove before giving up -- apparently Madrid lacks camping gear, and hey, bread and brie is cheap here :-)
Monday, April 7, 2008
I arrived in Madrid yesterday, but my luggage didn't. My nice sleek little road bike, my panniers, my biking gear, my solar charger -- all in the hands of TAP Portugal airlines?? I'm hoping for the best and trying to visualize recieving my luggage, but I have a sinking feeling about this ....
Fortunately, Kim has a friend in central Madrid, and we can stay in his apartment for as long as it takes for the luggage to come. That's a better option than camping while we wait, especially considering that my sleeping bag and camp stove are in that luggage ....
Friday, April 4, 2008
My checklist is nearly complete. Buy a digital camera, check. Donate, sell or store my belongings,
check. Create a training manual for the guy who'll replace me at work, check. Download Spanish lessons onto my ipod, check. (Thanks Will!)
Now I'm sitting at an empty desk, 4:30 on a Friday, knowing that the next step is to box my bike and board a plane. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what routes we'll ride, where we'll stay, how we'll afford to eat in a land where sandwiches cost 5 euro. But I do know this much: I can't wait to see Kim's face at a baggage carousel in Madrid ....