Thursday, May 29, 2008

Madrid again!! Coming back to Spain from Portugal felt like a homecoming! I felt like I had been in a foreign country, and I was returning to the non-foreign nation. Once the bus crossed the border, I could speak and understand the language (at least enough to get around), I could read the menus, everything looked familiar!

I sat by an Angolan immigrant to Spain while on the bus, and talked to him in Spanish about world affairs. One of the enjoyable parts of this trip has been meeting immigrants -- so often I meet those who have immigrated to the U.S., but rarely do I meet someone whose bookend nations are both ¨other¨ relative to me.

I was nervous that I had lost my Spanish while in Portugal for 10 days, but oddly I felt like I could speak and understand MORE, not less! I have two theories to explain this -- one, I got used to understanding nothing while in Portugal, so now I feel like I understand a great deal more; two, my brain relaxed, and insted of being stressed about learning the language, it chilled out, and by doing so, is free to understand more.

Kim arrived a few hours ago, she spent the last ten days living with a nice family in western Spain (the good news) and performing the repetitive, mind-numbing task of wrapping and tying one leaf around one sprout, hundreds of times daily, while sitting indoors (the bad news). We´re both shaking our hands free from volunteering on organic farms -- we´re closing that chapter -- and are jazzed about flying to Italia!

We´re leaving the apartment at 3:30 a.m. to check-in at the airport by 4:30 a.m. for our red eye to Rome. By breakfast time tomorrow, we´ll be eating gelado and staring at the Coluisseum.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I spent the weekend in Santa Cruz, Portugal, which has blue blue blue blue -- CRAZY BLUE -- ocean water, and some of the biggest waves I´ve ever seen.

Santa Cruz is a second-home community for the wealthy of Lisbon, and because it was supposedly ``cold`` that weekend (the Portugese seem to have a liberal definition of the word ``cold,`` perhaps because they do, after all, border Africa), the second-home dwellers stayed in Lisbon, rendering the beach empty. This, of course, only added to the beauty.

I was there with a pack of about 25 or 30 people, all united though Lisbon´s active local group. These people, all residents of Lisbon, met though Couchsurfing and engage with the Web site as though its their hobby.

Some people play sports, some paint, these guys host couchsurfers.

Many do it in order to meet people from around the world -- for them, its almost a way of traveling abroad vicariously, by bringing the world to their couch. Others do it because they take a lot of pride in Lisbon. The spirit I´ve seen here is one of patriotic pride mixed with a strong hospitality ethos.

In Santa Cruz, we enjoyed the quintessential ``weekend in a beach house`` -- beach during the day, dancing though the night, 3 a.m. group meals, more than two dozen people speaking various languages living in a four-bedroom townhouse.

Now I´m back in Lisbon and couchsurfing with a new couple, a police officer named Jorge and his Brazilian wife, who have a spotless, minimalist apartment and a quiet, placid existance. They´re a stark contrast to the energetic youth culture I´ve been around for the last week, and a welcome reprieve. They go to bed by 10:30 p.m., serve me breakfast in the mornings and dinner in the evenings, and like to engage in conversations about wine and global warming.

Some further observations on Portugal:

  • Both Spain and Portugal, being nations so close to Africa, have a surprizingly small number of black residents. The ones I do see, however rare, are extremely dark-skinned.
  • The Portugese flag is green on the left, red on the right, but it has more red than green, symbolizing too much blood for too little land. Appropriately, when they had their last revolution in 1974, overthrowing nearly half a century under a dictator, the revolution was completely bloodless -- soldiers lining the streets had red carnations in the barrels of their guns.
  • Its common for a drug dealer to approach you, holding a bag of hash in the palm of his hand, as you´re sitting at a sidewalk café drinking espresso. In fact, its common for this to happen several times before you´ve finished your sandwich.
  • Speaking of espresso, the Portugese are very, very particular about their espresso. They will only drink the kind made from a fancy machine, which only cafés (not residences) can afford to buy. If someone invites you over for a dinner party, its normal for all the guests, plus the host, to leave home after dinner, walk to the nearest café, order espressos, and then return to the hosts´ home.
  • The people of Portugal speak fondly about their heyday as the world´s imperial leader, back when they were the gateway to Africa, South America and India. 500 years later, they still revel in that memory.
  • They also retain close ties to their former colonies -- Goa, Cape Verde, Brazil -- those are the most popular spots for the Portugese to vacation.
  • For many Brazilian immigrants living in Portugal, this country is the ``gateway`` to Europe.
  • The seasons are changing rapidly here. Four years ago, summer used to mean July and August. Two years ago, it began meaning June and July. Now it means May and June. The so-called springtime is fluctuating wildly too, becoming rainier and hotter, to the point at which people say they´re turning into Africa, with not so much a ``spring`` as a rainy season and a dry season. What concerns everyone is how quickly this change took place. To boot, Portugal also had its first-ever recorded tornado last year.

Friday, May 23, 2008

This 10-week Europe trip has been the first time I´ve ever traveled without a guidebook. Six years ago, on my first backpacking experience in Japan, I thought traveling sans guidebook would be impossible -- how would you know where to catch the bus, or find hostels? -- and maybe, in Japan, where no one speaks English outside Tokyo and all the signs are written in incomprehensible script, that´s true. But here in Europe, it´s easy.

The tricks:

  1. Grab a map of the town, often available at help desks, and a map of the bus or train system. These are immensely helpful.
  2. Look at postcards to figure out what the `touristy` places you´re `supposed` to see are. Refer to maps to find out how to get there.
  3. I haven´t stayed at a hostel yet, thanks to friends-of-friends, camping and couchsurfing, but if I needed to, its simple to go to the touristy parts of town and just look for signs that say ``hostel.``
  4. Talk to locals.

For the last two days, I´ve visited all of Lisbon´s `must-see` sights: the fortress towers, the manueline monasteries, the gardens with perfectly manicured palm trees, trimmed hedges, and trees blossoming with purple and red flowers from its branches. It seems Portugal, like the U.S., appears either very rich or very poor depending on what neighborhood you´re in.

The architecture style I´m seeing in Portugal is, by far, my favorite among all the European countries I´ve visited in the last few years. I don´t know whether that´s because I intrinsically like it the best, or because its the style Walt Disney based his fairy-tale designs from. The designs of the towers harken back to childhood illustrations. Imagine Gothic blended with Renaissance, with a hint of Moorish.

The Portugese also have a lot of pride in their maritime history; they build lots of monuments to that time 500 years ago when they dominated the free world. Like the U.S., they love exhibiting all the native peoples they conquered. They proudly display maps of their sailors´voyages, and have oversized novelty ship anchors placed in parks and open fields; they erect statues not just of sailors, but also the poets who best commemorated those sailors.

Its fitting, then, that I´ll be spending the next several days by the sea, traveling this afternoon with my newfound clan of age-thirtysomething friends to a beach house in Santa Cruz, Portugal, where about 20 people will spend the weekend.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Living la vida Lisbon

Lisbon is a nice but small city, and -- as I´m beginning to see -- its very poor. I´ve been told Portugal is one of the poorest countries in the E.U., but I never quite felt that until yesterday, when I decided to walk to the other side of the city, where a statue of Jesus overlooking the city (like the one in Rio) and a large red bridge (like the Golden Gate) stand.

On that walk, I saw how the buildings, even the historic European monuments, were in utter disrepair; the people in baggy and old clothes; the cars, each and every one of them, old beaters. The architecture is reminiscent of Spain but the maintenance .... well, even Nepal, of all places, does a better job of maintenance. One underemployed psychologist with whom I ate lunch today, Giselle, told me its common in Lisbon to see lawyers working as shoe store associates, journalists pouring coffee. There are no jobs here, she said; there haven´t been for six or seven years.

Maybe this explains why the people of Portugal seem so much friendlier than the people of Spain.

They also have a penchant, it seems, for staying out late .... Frederico keeps taking me out in the evenings to see the ´Lisbon lifestyle,` and it seems people here are 35 going on 19. Monday night was what Frederico called an `early night,` meaning we got home at 2 a.m. Tuesday night, I stayed out until 5 a.m. until I saw that no one else had any intention of leaving; at that point, I bade farewell to my newfound Portugese friends and walked home.

`You see, we enjoy life!` said John, a thirtysomething Portugese who came out with us both Monday and Tuesday. `Leave the hard work to the Germans!`

Its a different scene .... no one drinks very much, certainly not as much as Americans drink, but they stay out LATE, having conversations and listening to music and dancing. You wonder how they don´t get bored of it after decades upon decades of the same thing, but maybe there´s not much else to do. Or maybe it morphs into a passion. I don´t know.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Welcome to Lisbon, Portugal!

I arrived here by bus two nights ago and was promptly greeted by Frederico, a 34-year-old father of two I met on who agreed to host me for part of my visit, and by two New Yorkers who are also couchsurfing with him. We all share a single-room studio in the heart of Lisbon´s commercial district, just by the water. Both his shower and his stove are broken, but he does have an ironing board, futon and a collection of DVDs with titles like American Pie 5 (Five?? They go up that high??)

It´s a beautiful city, with brighter, more cheerful colors and smaller, more detailed tiles and stones than Madrid. It takes on a much older feel; both the buildings and the lifestyle, the number of locals at sidewalk cafés, retain the quaint atmosphere of Old Europe. In the Moorish district, women still lean out from their second-story windows to have conversations, and grandparents sit on the stoops at every corner. The streets are winding and narrow; in some spots, too narrow for even the trolley cars to pull through.

Traveling -- specifically long-term travel, or `vagabonding´ -- appeals to me for reasons that might not be obvious. It´s not just seeing the architecture, food, traditions and people of other countries; its not just meeting other travelers or negotiating your way through new, unfamilar territory in a different language. Its not even the small details, like learning different keyboards and how different types of toilets are designed to flush (and there´s a LOT of variation!) Those are nice, but they´re not a complete list.

It´s also, largely, the lifestyle. Life is constantly new and novel and different and ever-changing. Right now I´m taking long, uninterrupted walks through the narrow streets of Lisbon, with no destination in mind and nothing to do but continue walking. Last week, I was watching flamenco dancers perform in Madrid. The week before, I was enjoying a gentle breeze from a hammock in the lush Andalucian hills, staring lazily at the wild sweet peas and tomatoes near the dilapidated camper van where we slept, broken down in the midst of rows of almond trees. Two days before that, looking at Raphel origonals in the Prado. A week earlier, sleeping on a Mediterranean beach in Málaga. A week prior, fixing flat bicycle tires on the side of the road and raiding candy stores for comfort before meeting cops in a casino that took us in for the night.

Kim is in western Spain now, working on a farm for the next nine days. She enjoys being a farmhand; she really likes hard, manual work. I don´t, especially when I´m not getting paid for it. (I liken it to trading six hours of labor for a sandwich.) We´re going to meet up in Madrid -- our base camp!!-- on the 29th of May; we and Matt will fly to Rome on the 30th.

Between now and then, I need to find ways to entertain myself in Lisbon .... with several old castles, bohemian neighborhoods and a couple of beaches, that shouldn´t be too hard to do!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Yesterday was a fantastic example of "life" in Madrid: we went running at a nearby track, shopped for contact lens solution, and had dinner with Clara, a friend with whom I worked at a summer camp in Maine. She was born and raised in Madrid.

Sharing tapas with Clara and her 16-year-old sister in their living room, hearing about their family, boyfriends and school, was a great insiders look at the culture and people of Spain. Kim and I voiced aloud observations we never knew we made:
  • there's no "food on the run" here, like a bagel-to-go during your morning commute or a street vendor cart serving a quick bite;
  • people stand close to you when they speak, to the point to which it infringes on your American sense of personal space;
  • stores don't issue gift certificates or take returns;
  • light switches are often outside the room;
  • waiters won't bring you a check unless specifically asked.
That night we went to a house party in Madrid's gay district, thrown by American ex-patriates who moved to Madrid and took jobs teaching English.

After a few hours there, Kim and I got bored and wandered the streets striking up conversations with passers-by until we found a discotech, followed by two drag queen shows.

We took a cab home at 5 a.m. and found that the roommates were still out partying; no one was home to let us in.

We tried to sleep in the hallway outside the apartment door, but the bare floor was frigid, so at 8:30 a.m. we retreated to a café for toast and lamented about the fact that this country doesn't serve bottomless mugs of coffee.

Matt let us into the apartment an hour later, and we snoozed until 3 p.m. In spite of not having jobs, Kim and I don't seem to get much sleep here.

Now its time for the next chapter in the journey: tomorrow I'm taking a bus to Lisbon, Portugal, while Kim travels to a farm in western Spain. (She really enjoys farm work; I want to explore a new country).

We'll meet in Madrid on May 29; the next morning, she, Matt and I will all take the same red-eye to Rome. Matt's making it a round-trip weekend excursion, while Kim and I will spend the next two weeks traversing from Italy to Germany. We fly out of Frankfurt, back to the U.S., in exactly a month.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Having my parents visit for a week was one of the highlights of this trip to Spain. With them, Kim and I acted as tour guides to Madrid and showed them the sights: the numerous plazas with cute cafés, the Sunday morning flea market, the city rose garden, the royal palace. They, in turn, gave us experiences we'd never have done on our own, like an evening at a flamenco dance show, where we saw the dancers legs vibrate at a pace we didn't realize was humanly possible.

They left yesterday morning, and Kim and I are now back in the the mix of life in Madrid. After spending 3 of the past 5 weeks in Madrid, I feel like we've crossed the threshold between visiting a place and actually living there.

Madrid is like Boulder, Colo., in the sense that its a wonderful place to visit, but an even nicer place to live. It's sunny year-round, filled with large lush parks, great public transit, and an active and lively city life. In the winter, its 30 minutes from the nearest ski mountain. All its missing is a beach :-)

Here, we've transitioned from "vacationing" to "traveling."

On a vacation, people take advantage of each day: you might plan to spend a morning on an architectural tour, the afternoon at an art museum, the evening at a restaurant or nightspot.

But when "traveling," you re-create your daily life routine in a foreign setting, and the challenge is to navigate in a new setting and keep yourself entertained sans employment. You read books, watch movies, cook new experimental meals, and take long walks.

Thats our life here in Madrid: at home, we watch Wedding Crashers and Shrek 3, upload photos onto our MySpace pages and read business books. But each day takes on an international tinge, whether it be though asking the pharmacist in Spanish for contact lens solution, learning the Metro routes through greater Madrid, watching The Simpsons in Spanish, or seeing how the grocery stores shut down from noon to 4 p.m. each day for siesta.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Having my parents in Spain is great. They and Kim both laugh a lot; combine them together and its nonstop hilarity.

Yesterday we went to Toledo, the historic former capital, and met Francisco and Isabel, the first family that took in Kim and I when we were on the bike trip. The couple, I think, was surprised to see us off our bikes, well-fed and non-smelly!

Though we DO still look strange. Kim and I Googled ¨lavandaria,¨ stuffed our clothes in gallon trash bags, and hauled them to what we thought was a laundromat. Turns out, the Spanish word for laundromat and car wash is the same. We then hauled it to a ¨tintoreria,¨ which the dictionary said was a laundromat but was actually a dry cleaner. The third place we took it to said they charged the U.S. equivalent of $22 a load, times 6 loads. So now, our clothes are all in gallon trash bags in my parent´s hotel room, while Kim wears Matt´s clothes (he´s over 6 feet tall) and I wear my mom´s clothes (she´s less than 5 feet tall). We´re misfitted and odd-looking, but for once, we at least smell nice!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Crisis averted! Kim and I are totally in the clear; we pass with a clean bill of health, and (as my parents say) that's largely because we handled everything responsibly and immediately. Go us!

Today we'll show my parents around Madrid. We're excited to be tour guides for this city.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nit-picking. Delousing. Welcome to a great vacation.

Kim spent the day sanitizing the apartment -- washing the curtains, vacuuming the couch cushions, trying to rid the place of lice as much as possible.

I picked up my parents from the airport, then promptly led them to the apartment, where they patiently spent Day 1 of a 6-day trip to Spain watching and waiting as Kim searched pharmacies for the right anti-lice hair medication, translated the instructions using an online translator, and washed a dozen or more loads of laundry. (My parents off-handledly commented that they don't feel like they're in Madrid, they feel like they're in an apartment.)

"I feel like I'm being such a bad host," Kim said. "But I'd feel like an even worse host if I gave them lice."

She has spent the last two hours infusing her hair with as much toxic chemical as possible, then combing through every square inch.

My hair is healthy, but I'm doing the same, just as a precautionary measure.

End result? Looks like she's almost in the clear -- we found less than a dozen bugs.

It also looks like I'm completely in the clear and never caught lice from her, which is surprising, considering that we've been sharing pillows. But its also reassuring -- it means we probably nipped this problem in the bud at an early stage.

And now that I've doused my hair with anti-lice medication and throughly cleaned it, I KNOW I'm sanitized and healthy, and I feel good about that.
Kim's become a public health risk: she has lice.

She discovered this last night after using hair conditioner for the first time since the trip started and discovering four bugs as she ran her hands through her hair.

We looked up lice on and discovered, humorously, that adults most likely to contract lice are "People who live in crowded or unclean conditions and who do not or cannot bathe and wash their clothing regularly."

Hmmm, let's see ..... camping in muddy roadside olive groves? Check. Sleeping in a van in the middle of the forest? Check. Wearing the same 2 shirts and 2 shorts everyday for the past month, washing it on the rare occasions where we have an opportunity to be in one place long enough to let them dry? Check.

We suspect she picked it up at Alejandro's house, where we were in close contact with his 7 and 9 year old kids -- children that age are the most prone to be lice-carriers. (Good thing we left his place so quickly!)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

We spent several days on the farm, living in a camper van, and doing labor like pouring cement, filling in the cracks between tiles, planting trees and painting a room. Kim loved it, though I thought the setup reeked of "free labor." For me, at least, it was a chance to catch up on all of my audiobooks on my ipod as we spent the days painting .... I've "read" a lot since coming here!

Yesterday we left the farm and went to Granada, an old Muslim city in southern Spain that was ruled by the Moors since late 600 A.D. until the Catholics conquered it in 1492. Its architecture, food, art, and people resemble that blend of Moorish and Christian-Inquisition-Renaissance heritage, making it an incredibly culturally diverse city (it was common to see street signs written in several languages, including Arabic, English, Spanish and something that I can only assume was probably Portugese?)
We spent the day in Granada .... I wandered through the fortress compounds and strolled through tea stalls while Kim documented plants .... and took a late bus back to Madrid, buzzing into the apartment at midnight.

Today I'm heading to another art musuem (the last of Madrid's "big three") while Kim spends the day at the park.

Tomorrow morning, my parents arrive! They're visiting for a week, and it'll be strange to do the "vacation" thing ..... staying at hotels .... eating at restaurants .... all the fancy stuff! We were planning on going together to San Sebastian, a beach town in the north, but last Thursday, two bombs exploded in San Sebastian, so we decided to re-route. Looks like we missed the bombing by a week! No one was hurt, and all in all, Spain seems pretty safe, theft notwithstanding.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

We´re living in a green camper van in the forests of the lush Las Alpujerras valley, completely surrounded by earth. Sweet peas and tomatoes grow wild on the ground; almond, avocado and orange trees are everywhere, and a symphony of birdcalls wakes us up each morning. Yesterday we spotted a hummingbird the size of our thumb.

We work six hours a day in exchange for food and shelter, doing varied projects like planting trees, painting a room and filling in the cracks between tiles in a swimming pool. In our time off, there´s a nice hammock we lay in. Kim´s teaching me how to spin poi, and I´m reading a book on Spanish history.

Not much time to write now, but will say more later .... today is our day off, and we´ve hiked down to the coastal town of Almunecar, where I´ll go to the beach and Kim will walk the botanical gardens.