my plane landed in marseilles and i quickly found the train station and boarded the train to nice. i was still a little on edge from the morning’s events in tangiers, morocco, so i didn’t really enjoy the train ride or its scenery, unfortunately. but it was only a matter of time before the delicate side to side rock and roll of the train lulled me into a fast asleep. i awoke only minutes before the train pulled into the station.
i exited and hoped it wouldn’t be too long before my friends had found me. i was tired of being on edge and i was tired of not being able to trust people. the morocco medinas had worn me out. i stepped out into the terminal and walked a few feet. i didn’t see my friends, but something else had momentarily captured my attention. nothing. people rushed around me, hurriedly trying to catch another train or grab a cab, music played softly overhead, and people navigated on autopilot while interacting with their cellphones. but no one cared that i was there. i may as well have been a garbage can, merely an obstacle to avoid, an object to tolerate but pay no mind to. no one was trying to sell me anything, no one in my face demanding that i purchase some item that i likely had no use for, no opportunistic agents persuading me to follow them down some darkened alley to a “hotel” i had no desire to stay at. i was completely anonymous, and not a single soul around me gave one ounce of a damn about me. i breathed a sigh of relief. i’d never been so happy to be among the french.
i met ben and abby in a dingy little coffee shop next door to the bus station in fes. the coffee wasn’t particularly good, but i’m not sure what could be expected from bus station coffee shop. i opted instead for a takeaway yogurt and boarded the bus. we chatted idly for a couple hours, trying to enjoy the sights on the drive, but a strong tradewind from the north had sent storm clouds from europe sweeping down into morocco, dampening the sights and the air. thick clouds blocked many of the scenic views of the rif mountains, and when we did eventually stop for a break, everyone only piled off the bus and then huddled under the overhang of the gas station. when we eventually arrived in chefchaouen hours later, it was raining lightly and we all just wanted to get to our hotels. we parted ways and agreed to meet up again somewhere in town, though we never did. i was okay with it; they were on their own adventure and probably wanted some time alone, and i had a new city to explore.
chefchaouen is not a big city, and once again i incorrectly assumed that i could just find my own way to my hostel at riad baraka by navigating from memory. after not being able to locate the hostel and stumbling up and down the uneven, serpentine streets, i began speaking to an old man who had been trying to lure me into his restaurant. i ended up making a deal with him that he would show me where the hostel was if i ate at his restaurant. fair enough, i was hungry anyway. as i sat and ate, i noticed the horrible smell of rotting fish drifting from my pack, and suddenly remembered it as the same smell that had been emanating from the cargo hold of the bus i had ridden in. something in that abyss of despair had spilled onto my gear, and now i smelled like yesterday’s garbage. perfect.
a spanish omelette and 2 pieces of bread later, the old man led me a few minutes walk away to the riad baraka, making sure to stay upwind of me. when we arrived there he began asking me for some sort of token or gift to remember me by. i didn’t really understand what he wanted at first, but i didn’t really have anything i could share with him and i felt badly about it. i pack relatively simple, clothes and toiletries, and camera and laptop, and that’s about it. i don’t buy mementos or souvenirs. ever. so i disappointed the man and Continue reading chefchaouen, morocco: the blue pearl of north africa→
martín had departed and i had strayed away from madrid and down into the marvelous countryside of andalusia. i wasn’t sure what exactly i would be doing but i had 5 days before i needed to be in morocco and i didn’t want to spend that whole time in madrid. just a couple hours on the train rushing by the rolling hillsides and golden fields had been sufficient proof that i had made the right decision, and i knew i was headed where the music was playing.
i pulled into seville and had a brief wander through the confusing streets before locating perhaps the best hostel i would end up staying at my entire trip, a place called “la banda rooftop hostel.” run by four brits who had long been friends and had a dream of running a hostel in a spanish speaking country, i could see almost immediately that they had created one of the best cultures i had ever seen, not just in a hostel, but even amongst work environments. these guys loved what they did, and people loved being there.
after i got settled in, i went up to the rooftop. since it was in the title of the place, i wanted to see what all the fuss was about. what i found was a wonderfully quaint terrace with a modest view of the cathedral and a small garden that lined the railings. it was a perfect place to relax, and there were a few guests who were doing just that, spread out among the patio furniture, reading books or typing away on laptops. i sat down amongst them and tried to soak in a little of the sun’s warmth. a minute later a young man sitting next to me struck up a friendly conversation. he had long black hair, covered up by an aged worn bowler cap, a la old 1930s america. he had sunglasses on and was slightly unshaven, and had an old troubadour look about him that seemed to suggest he liked stories, whether reading about them or experiencing them. either way was fine by me, and i decided he had an old-fashioned kind of bob dylan look about him, which made me snicker and say to myself “of course!” when he introduced himself as dylan only a few seconds later. dylan was from vermont and he had never traveled extensively before, but had always wanted to go to spain, so he had booked a flight for two weeks in spain with no reservations and had skipped down to seville only two days before. he filled me in a little on the area around us and suggested a few favorites before i left him, making plans to meet up again that night.
i went back down into the lobby and conferred with tom, one of the la banda founders. i expressed to him that there were only two important things i needed to experience in seville: good local-style tapas, and flamenco. tom dutifully pulled out a map and started marking spots for me to try out, while i tried intensely to pay attention, knowing all bets were off once i left the hostel and was lost wandering the streets of old sevilla by myself.
when tom was finished marking everything all over the map, i set out into the streets and started to get a feel for sevilla as i popped in and out of four or five different tapas locations, sampling all manner of different dishes and wines. my favorite of all these places was the last place i stopped, in a little spot called “la bodega de santa cruz,” located just up the road from the cathedral of sevilla. in an unassuming and unfancy building on the corner of the cobblestone road, the place was bustling with life as patrons stood packed around tables and the bar, nursing their wines and beers and hungrily devouring their small plates of delicious fare and talking and laughing loudly while the aromas wafted alluringly above the crowd and out into the streets, attracting people in droves. this place was a party, and i had arrived just in time. i shouldered my way up to the bar and waited patiently for someone to make eye contact with me.
winter had settled in on spain in an aggressive way. almost overnight the temperature dropped by 40 degrees fahrenheit, and suddenly walking around outside didn’t seem as enjoyable. the patios of many of the local watering holes began to dry up, where 2 days prior there were throngs of people socializing and drinking outside, they were now packed inside, trying to stay dry and warm. rainclouds would sweep low over the city, in a constant drizzle, ensuring nothing could stay dry, and then brisk winds would rush through the city streets ensuring the damp was felt with a ferocity. the streets glistened and reflected the streetlights above, creating a watery mirrored horizon to the cityscape.
martín and i tried to make the most of his last day in europe, despite the weather. we explored the streets endlessly, in search of nothing more than the mysteries of what might lie beyond the next corner. we had marked a few things out on a map just to provide a little direction for our wanderings, but we largely ignored it, content to just walk and take everything in. one thing i had come to admire martín for was his fearlessness in interacting with locals, specifically when asking for directions or recommendations on where to go or what to eat. up until this point i had spent most of my life refusing to ask for directions or recommendations from other people (whether at home or abroad), but not for the reasons one might assume. the common humor goes in america that a man doesn’t ask for directions because it is a point of pride to never be lost and always know where he is going, and to ask for directions would be to hint that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that would be damaging to his pride. but that’s not really why i never did it. growing up, my parents always “had it together,” and they never wanted to appear that they didn’t have all the answers. always dressed sharply and always knowing what’s going on, this façade contributed to an overall image of “there’s a plan, and we’re sticking to it.” it was keeping up appearances, but if one were to peek behind the curtain, they would see just how chaotic and blindfolded my family really was. we were more lost than everyone else.
i think it’s hundreds of little things like that which add up to a greater dishonesty that led me to reject so much of my life and myself and leave in search of greater truth and authenticity, and so much of this trip, i had begun to discover, was unlearning these poisonous habits. martín stopped to ask a random person in the street where the best hamburger place was in the neighborhood, i tried to stop him because i was so embarrassed. when he had finished talking to the very nice lady who instructed us to walk a couple more blocks and go right to an argentinian burger joint that was magnificent, i asked him Continue reading spain, pt 4. madrid: the tourist and the traveler→
that night martín and i readied our things so we could simply get up and leave the next morning. we had to be on the other side of town by 730am, so we needed to be up early. we also made sure to leave the bars a little earlier to allow time to pack, because you never want to be that guy that wakes everyone up in the middle of the night to stuff his clothing back into his backpack. so we weren’t overly surprised to find that the other 10 beds in our room were completely empty. it was actually a minor relief, not only because i didn’t want to have to tiptoe while packing, but also because in the week that we had been staying in this dorm… martín and i had both agreed that we had some really weird roommates.
to start, there was the strange finnish couple who had not spent a day sober since we got there. every time we saw them there was a handle of vodka or rum very nearby and halfway empty, and they offered to share with anyone who would listen. admirable for sure, but when someone is so drunk they can barely stand, sharing a drink with them isn’t always the most attractive invitation. i rarely saw them leave the hostel, and if they did it was to go buy more booze. they would spend most of their days smoking cigarettes or marijuana on the balcony patio and washing it down with alcohol. they also hung their laundry to dry all over the patio, effectively and unintentionally condemning it for anyone else to use or enjoy. i felt a little schadenfreude when a heavy morning raincloud had breezed by the city and soaked all their laundry that they had forgotten to remove the day prior. these two were a mess, and they disgusted me.
then there was a group of american students from southern california, studying abroad in granada, and taking an extended weekend in barcelona. they meant well, but they were just obnoxious. one larger, jolly fellow with three materialistic, typical california girls who were consumed by fashion and status, and generally didn’t really care about anyone other than themselves. they would come back from the bars extremely late and extremely drunk each night, after everyone else had gone to sleep (or passed out, in the case of the finnish), and they would turn the lights on in the room and loudly talk and laugh and careen around the room like pinballs as they got ready for bed. these types of hostel roommates are the worst, especially if you’re staying in a “quiet hostel,” instead of a “party hostel” (yes, there is a distinction in europe).
then, there were a trio of guys from somewhere east, i couldn’t be
sure. i wanted to like them, as they seemed well-intentioned enough, but two of them simply cost me too much sleep, as they were both heavy snorers and had been positioned on opposing sides of my bed, creating an amplified stereo chorus of suffocation each night i laid my head down to sleep. when traveling, i always pack ear plugs, which normally will drown out 90% of noise. but in certain cases, bigger weapons are needed, which calls for my noise canceling headphones and ipod. these two guys were so loud that i failed to drown them out with my backup plan, and i ended up tossing and turning and trying to choke myself out with my pillow in an attempt to find some semblance of rest. nothing worked, hence i could not be friends with these assholes.
let me clarify: i understand that many people suffer from snoring and sleep apnea. it’s an un-fun and involuntary condition. but if you are a chronic snorer and you are wanting to sleep in a common room with other people, you owe it to your roommates to either seek some kind of treatment (there are mouthguards that limit the noise and make it easier to breathe, as well as sprays that can lubricate your throat and make it easier for air to pass into your windpipe, etc.) or pay a little extra for the private room. it’s just common courtesy.
and then lastly, and probably martín’s and my favorite of the group: el vampiro (the vampire). after martín and i had been in the bon moustache for a few nights, we had gone out to buy some provisions so we could cook ourselves a cheap meal at the hostel. as martin was preparing the rice his special way that he really likes (sticky and slightly overcooked, but with a tasty seasoning), he suddenly looked up at me with a start and exclaimed “OH MAN!”
i looked back at him with concern while i prepared a large salad (which he refused to eat. martín apparently doesn’t eat vegetables. he swore he would begin eating them when he returned home after i issued him a stern lecture on why vegetables are essential to his health), wondering if we had forgotten a key ingredient in his rice dish.
“did you hear the guy next to me last night? HE SCARED THE SHEET OUT OF ME MAN!” martín managed to get the words out amid a confusion of anger, excitement, and laughter. the last guy in our hostel had been a very reclusive dark-skinned guy from paris, france. he wore eccentric clothes and had a very effeminate nature and was extremely thin, to the point of wondering if he was malnourished. probably not the case, as his clothes were clearly not cheap, but every day we would get up and as we were leaving, this guy would come back to the hostel and go straight to bed. when we would return at the end of the day and begin getting ready for sleep, he would just be getting up and getting ready to go out. by the time i had brushed my teeth, he would already be gone. but the previous night, he had stayed in, for some inexplicable reason, and just kept sleeping. we don’t know. he never talked to anyone, wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, really. very strange.
“it was in the middle of the night, maybe at like 3 am, and this guy, he just screams at the top of his lungs, like ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH’ and i got so scared man. wow, i fell out of my bed!” we started laughing. everything martín said in english was just enhanced by his accent. it made things even funnier, and his delivery was perfect in its casual effortlessness.
“I am scared of heem, man. Como un vampiro…” he trailed off and i started laughing even harder. it was the perfect description. a vampire. for the rest of the week, whenever we would see el vampiro, i would shoot a quick glance over to martín and show him wide, terrified eyes, or i would flash my teeth, as if to suggest an old-fashioned, vampiric neck-bite was coming. it was definitely not my most mature of behaviors, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of the circus you just gotta have fun with the clowns.
needless to say, despite how much we really did like the bon moustache hostel, we were ready to leave our roommates. we awoke the next morning, mounted our packs atop our backs and stepped out into the street, just as a torrential downpour descended upon the city. i’m sure somewhere, karma was laughing at me.
7 hours later we were in madrid. we’d saved a lot of money by taking the bus, but the train would have been about 4 hours quicker. these are the tradeoffs you make when backpacking. we arrived and went straight to the metro to ride the train to the tribunal station, in search of a hostel that martín had found on a useful app that he had been using called “hostelworld.” collecting all the relevant hostels, guesthouses, b&b’s, and campsites within a city or area, the hostelworld app allows you stat-rank all your potential accommodations by price, location, availability, and user rating, and it does so at no additional cost to you, the user. after meeting martín, i used this app to find every single accommodation for the rest of my trip.
this was to be martín’s final stay before returning home to uruguay, so he had selected the highest rated hostel in madrid, a newer place called room007 chueca, located in the chueca and malasaña neighborhoods, which would become my favorite neighborhoods in spain over the next week. i remember thinking the name of the hostel seemed a little cheesy, but the pictures had looked pretty cool so i went along with it. when we arrived however, i changed my mind. this place was great. room007 chueca is a modern urban hostel with a cool, fashionable design, and a comfortable and clever use of space. the rooms aren’t overly crowded and have a very clean atmosphere that makes it easy to relax. there is also a terrace on top of the hostel with a kitchen, a big tv, large bean bags to sit on, and an outdoor patio that looks out on the city below. within minutes of checking in, martín and i were already in awe of the place. but we were also starving.
we went down to the woman working the front desk, a woman in her early to mid 20s with brown-rooted blonding hair and eyes whose depth seemed to reach for leagues beneath the sea of blue. she had a light dusting of freckles that gave her a girl-next-door look which she had tried to cover up a little with makeup, but thankfully they still shined through. i was spellbound, so martín did the talking.
“excuse me…” he began in english before quickly realizing he wasn’t speaking to me, so he could speak his native tongue much quicker with a spanish girl. they spoke for a few minutes in a speed that i failed to follow along with, and when martín had obtained the information he was after, he turned to me and woke me out of my trance. there is something enchanting about listening to spanish women speak. we americans will often poke fun at the way they pronounce the “s” but the way women and men do it in spain is different. men power through the “s” (as men do tend to do in most things. we muscle our way through things rather than utilize technique), often letting their tongue push up against their teeth and even separating their top teeth from bottom while making the sound, creating a “th” sound. meanwhile women gently play with the “s” on the tip of their tongue and roll it around, never really making contact with the teeth or the roof of their mouth, giving the sound a breathier effortlessness that i found intoxicatingly sexy.
“due! come on! i’m starving man!” martín doesn’t ever pronounce the second “d” in “dude,” and i was lost in a reverie of blondie’s “s” pronunciations. i snapped out of it and sheepishly backed away from the desk and out the door as she flashed me a confused smile. rejoining martín on the street, we made a beeline for a place called “el tigre del norte,” or “the tiger of the north.”
if you have friends whom have been to spain before, one of the things they undoubtedly have talked about is tapas. tapas, for the uninitiated, are quite simply, little plates of food. there are myriad variations/preparations/varieties out there which i won’t go into because i honestly don’t know them. i just like to eat them. but they are a perfect way to sample a lot of different things at a restaurant rather than commit to just one plate, which is something that i often have a problem with.
one of the coolest things about tapas in the originating country of spain, is that traditionally served, they are a free accompaniment of your drink order. wine or beer, historically you would receive a plate of food at no extra charge with a variety of different cheeses, breads, cured meats, olives, fried snacks, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and always delicious. additionally, when at a more traditional tapas bar, patrons are not seated like they would be at a normal restaurant. they are standing up, milling about, socializing and interacting in this most social of environments. it’s always a lively and energetic atmosphere, and one that america routinely fails to replicate when a new “tapas bar” pops up in your neighborhood.
unfortunately the “free” part of tapas has gradually disappeared across most of spain. most places charge separately for the drink and the food now, and if you want a place that will still serve you food for free along with your beverage, you have to search for it (the further into andalusia you get, the easier it is to find these types of places). luckily, our lovely front desk woman had pointed us in the right direction, as el tigre del norte is one such place.
martín and i didn’t exactly know what to expect, but we wanted a cheap tapas place, and if i’m being honest, we didn’t really believe that the food would be free. we had planned to go into el tigre, get a beer, try some tapas, then go find a place to get a real dinner, and then go out and hit the town, find some dive bar with cheap beers and good people watching.
el tigre is a stripped down place with mounted animal heads on the walls and next to no seating. there are large barrels standing on end which you can stand next to and use as a makeshift table to rest your beverage and small plate or napkin of food. we leaned up next to one and signaled for a couple beers. the waiter came around a few minutes later with drinks and asked us if we wanted tapas. we both eagerly said yes, and a few minutes later we were brought plates full of bread, cured meats, and cheese. it was a messy but delicious concoction. martín and i looked at each other, surprised, and then immediately devoured everything on the plate. a few minutes later, the waiter came by again and laughed that we had already eaten everything. “quieres mas?” (want more?) he inquired. martín and i looked at each other again with surprise and looked back at the waiter “si!” he brought us another plate full of food and killed it again within minutes. we hadn’t even finished our beers yet.
the waiter brought us the bill and we were shocked to find out that we had only been charged for 2 beers total. we had obliterated 4 plates of food, and the beers hadn’t even cost 2 euros each. this place must be heaven. we ordered another beer each, mainly out of guilt for consuming so much food and paying so little. but i was full now, and i couldn’t even finish my beer. eventually we left, in search of more adventures in the vibrant madrid nights.
we drifted down into the malasaña neighborhood, taking in the soul of the place. according to locals, the summer had stretched into autumn, and madrid had been extremely warm… until today. The temperature had dropped considerably and the night air was cold, but it was hard not to let the energy of the city get into your bones in a positive way. sporadic, short rains would attack the streets, so our walk was punctuated by short sprints where we would seek shelter until the cloud passed. the rain eventually won, however, and martín and i ducked into an interesting little watering hole where we could get a drink and maybe meet some madrileños.
the place was dimly lit but smartly decorated. this was not a dive bar. the beers were a little expensive but they were at least large. the patrons were decidedly all locals and were of the young professional variety, and everyone in the place seemed to be directly engaged in conversation with someone they had met there purposefully, so martín and i accepted the fact that we were not going to make any new friends here, and engaged in casual conversation amongst ourselves.
after a beer and into the second, martín and i had already laid waste to a couple appetizers and bowls of bar nuts, i had been very curious about martín’s decision to take this trip. it had occurred to me earlier in the night that i had been traveling with him for over a week now, and i didn’t actually know that much about him. sure, we’d had a lot of great times already, and he had become a great friend in such a short time, but i didn’t know anything about him from before our chance meeting on that bus in barcelona. before “the road” had taken over. so i began peppering him with questions about his past, his work, his future, and as always, he responded with a patient enthusiasm, that someone else would be taking an interest in him, but also a shyness that i had come to expect from martín whenever he talked about himself. martín is a very humble person, and i loved that about him. it wasn’t long before the conversation had gotten into a very dark and moving place, when martín had begun to share with me his reasons for traveling.
now that i had been traveling for an extended period of time, one of the things i had forced myself to learn to do is make friends, no matter how short the shelf life of that friendship would be, i would do it because i had to. i am a social animal, and i need to socialize (even if i paint myself to be a curmudgeonly loner, and i do value my personal time, i still crave social interaction). and now that i had done it enough, i had begun to become a little more selectively specific with who i would make friends with. i’d started to notice patterns or behaviors in others that i recognized in myself. it’s usually in the eyes. they say the eyes are the window to the soul, and this is never more true than in the eyes of a traveler. some travelers are adventurers, they are fearless, they haven’t a worry in the world and their energy shines bright with a twinkle in the eye. while other travelers are merely tourists, and they take everything in with a wide-eyed infancy and a temerity that most seasoned travelers can identify quickly, and either are enthused by it and want to help that person along in the journey by showing them things they may not have the courage to see on their own, or they are annoyed by it, and try to avoid the tourist altogether (in this journey, i have been both the tourist and the seasoned traveler. i’ve also been both the helper and the avoider as well).
the type of traveler that i am drawn to and identify most with, however is the seeker. the soul searcher. the aimless wanderer, seeking to understand greater mysteries about his own existence and the world around him. he (or she) does not seek to place labels nor assign blame, but instead he only asks. to learn more about nature and his fellow man, that another’s story might provide a better understanding of his own, this is the seeker’s engine, and the wondrous destinations of the world are the fuel. and one need not hear a word from the seeker’s mouth to uncover his disguise; they need only look in his eyes. it’s all there. a seeker has seen the world for what it is, bad and good. he has seen how beautiful life is, but he has also experienced pain and loss, and he walks a tightrope delicately somewhere in the middle, the weight of both heavy upon his shoulders. he knows joy and he knows sadness, but he does not know one without the other, for they are both of the same. and his conflict is visible, though barely perceptible, at the eye of the seeker. only another seeker can see it, because the seeker is adept at blending in with the world around him, so he has learned to hide the complexity of his nature, because the world doesn’t like complex. it prefers simple. and so the seeker hides in plain sight. but his search for authenticity is never dormant.
martín was a seeker, and i had known it within minutes of talking to him, but i had never pressed him for detail. and that detail was now being shared with me in a raw, soul-baring way. martín had come from a happy family, loving parents and an older brother who all cared for him. martín had finished school and become an accountant in vibrant montevideo, uruguay. he was tall, handsome, amiable, and people liked being around him. he had a girlfriend he cared deeply for, and everything seemed to be lining up for a perfect life, when the unthinkable happened. martín’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in both her liver and pancreas. she underwent chemotherapy treatment, but it was too late. within 8 months, the cancer took her life. the family was devastated.
martín had been clearly shaken. his mother had been the glue of the family, and now she was gone, leaving martín to question a lot about his own life and purpose. he didn’t know what or where the answers were, but he wasn’t finding them at home. he had honest conversations with his girlfriend and family, then quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to spain. over the next 4 months he traveled all around europe, from the northern reaches of germany down to the southern beaches of italy, martín wandered aimlessly, but with purpose, unsure if he’d ever be able to explain his journey to anyone and have them truly understand it to its core. but travel, he did, and he was now at the end. his return to uruguay was in 2 days.
i didn’t know how to respond. in the last few weeks, i had met some of the most incredible people and i had heard some of the most moving stories, but this one was the most shocking. i couldn’t possibly place myself in martín’s shoes, so i didn’t try. i just sat there dumbfounded and sad while martín shared his story with me. i listened intently, unconscious of the bar around us. a group of four had moved into the table next to us and they were shouting at the top of their lungs at a level disproportionate to the noise level of the rest of the room, but i didn’t care. it struck me that martín wasn’t sad anymore. he seemed to be at peacewith his journey and with himself.
“so did you find what you were looking for?” i asked him earnestly. “yeah I did man. i think this is what my mom would have wanted me to do.” i didn’t dare ask him about the thing that he had been searching for. i knew better. each seeker’s journey, destination, and discovery is completely different, and there’s no real way to explain it to another person. even if martín tried, i still wouldn’t be able to comprehend it in a way that was as meaningful to him, even if our stories were exactly the same. it’s why the journey was his, and why i had my own.
we left the bar and headed back to the hostel. i was conflicted about everything. i now felt like i really understood martín, but it’s not like we had solved any major mysteries, we hadn’t brought his mother back, and we hadn’t found the key to happiness. and what’s more, i felt stupid for having traveled with martín for such a significant amount of time and only just now learning this very crucial and defining thing about him. i wasn’t sure if it was because i had been too occupied with myself or if the timing for such a conversation had just never lined up. i looked at martín. he seemed to have a peace about him that i wasn’t sure if i’d ever possess. i knew it was a product of his travels and i hoped that it was something i might one day grasp at the end of mine, but i wasn’t confident in that possibility. either way, i was grateful for having been even a speck on the horizon of martín’s story. there were so many questions I wanted to ask him, but i didn’t even know how to put them to words.
as we neared the hostel, a sudden truth struck me that brought a clarity to my confliction. martín was not a collection of the tragedies he had endured any more than i might be a collection of the joys i may have experienced. we are not the things that happen to us. but we do find small definition in the way we react to the events of our lives. much the way a beautiful sculpture is not formed with a single blow from the hammer, the artist carefully guides the stone from one shapeless mass to a beautiful masterpiece. one strike at a time, the hammer to the chisel, the chisel to the stone, we are formed. martín wasn’t a man who had lost his mother, he was a man who was living a full, magnificent life, a life which happened to have a tragedy along the way. but that tragedy had only been one small part of the greater impact of a mother whom had guided him to a beautiful existence for more than 2 decades of his life before her own journey had come to an end, leaving him to continue on his own. and this is how her memory lives on. as not one strike in the sculpture of martín, but many.
and so the seeker seeks on, thankful for the gift of time he had.
this week’s track comes from a brand new collaboration out of chicago, called “monakr.” the song “diamond” was written after founding member saam lost his uncle to cancer, and it is now the lead single for the project. i found this song to be particularly appropriate to today’s story, and i hope you enjoy…
spain lulled me into siesta the next few days. i had been running around from place to place all over europe, and i was now struck with a travel fatigue. my friend micah in denver had warned me of this. he had told me there would come a point where i would just be tired. tired from exploring, tired of searching for a place to sleep, tired of adapting to a new language with new customs, tired of figuring out what the “must-see” attractions are of a new place. just…tired. i was tired.
martín had told me that he had come back to barcelona to finish off his trip so that he could relax on the beach and do nothing for his last week in europe, and that is exactly what he did. every single day i would ask martín what he was doing and he would respond with a big goofy grin and say “oh man, eets reeeallyy nice outside, man. i’m going to the beach!” and so i went with him, in need of “throwaway days,” as i like to call them, where i had absolutely no expectations for myself.
on monday of this week, my clock turned the grand ol’ age of 32, so i am taking a break from the storytelling for one week to fast-forward to the future (present) and take a visual and mental look back at the last year. it’s hard for someone introspective like me not to think too much about calendar items like birthdays, but each year i try to think differently about them, and this year, i obviously had a lot to think about. 31 was a big year for me. those who know me well know that i’d had a pretty rough start to the year, after a couple of failed relationships (one for most of 2013, and then one for the first part of 2014) that hit me really hard back to back, paired with the realization that i had been miserable with my career for years and hadn’t even realized it til it was staring me in the face during a vacation to peru. i was suddenly in a midlife crisis and a minor depression, and i’m not someone who struggles like that with anything. and there i was, struggling with everything.
hey everybody, Viss here with your music monday mix, and this is an epic one.
anytime you go on an adventure, whether it is a day-trip to the mountains, or a six month journey around the world, you are going to encounter a wide range of activities, from traveling downtime or active exploration. both of these mixes are a journey in themselves. they rise and fall with some familiar songs and some that are going to give you a new listening experience.
this mix is a modern take on the old school mixtapes which were recorded onto blank cassette tapes and passed along to anyone who wanted them. after collecting the majority of music for this mix i decided that it would be best to have it split into two groups, so i decided to go with the “A side” and “B side” mixes. the “A side” is going to have more traditional instrumentation while the “B side” is going to have a more electronic feel.
i hope that you enjoy these mixes as a whole and use them to provide some added substance to your own adventures as they have done to mine!
feel free to save the to save the “A side” or “B side” mixes to your spotify page, or follow me if you want to keep up with the stuff I am listening to in real-time.
i woke up the next morning sorer than i had in months. it was the good kind of sore, the kind that reminds you that you had earned it, and any other unhealthy foods you could get your hands on. but i was also inexplicably restless. after i had gotten home from the previous day’s hike, i had been looking forward to a couple beers and a good in-depth conversation with my new french friend, jean, about life, love, his adventures in colorado, and everything in between. i was disappointed however when i returned to find his bunk empty and a note on my pillow with an apology on it, informing me that he had a received an urgent call from home and he’d left switzerland early. i crossed my fingers and hoped everything was okay, and lamented that i would likely never see him again. another casualty of the wander. it was something i was still learning how to deal with, even after being abroad for 2 months already.
i started to re-evaluate what my gameplan was. it was october 29th, and i was up on the alps in a ghost town. this was what i had wanted. i had wanted an epic hike in the alps and i had wanted to escape the hustle of the city, and i had gotten that, but now for some reason my feet were beginning to itch for a new destination again. the quiet solitude had quenched my wanderlust for only a day. Continue reading spain, pt 1: barcelona; minding my misconceptions→
the train ride to zermatt was going well and without incident until i reached visp and had to switch trains. the trains in switzerland thus far had been very nice and very efficient, always on time. but i suddenly was in doubt of that observation when the train made a routine stop and then an announcement was made stating that the train would not be going any further due to construction. fresh off the salzburg debacle (where basically the same thing happened, plunging me into a day filled with chaos), i immediately got off the train and started looking for a backup option like a bus or similar alternative. after looking around for a bit and getting confirmation that there were definitely no more trains going the correct direction, i noticed a few other people scrambling around in an aimless panic. i laughed briefly to myself, knowing exactly how they felt, but i was also experiencing a weird confidence that was completely foreign to me. despite the fact that nothing appeared be going how i needed once again and there seemed to be a subdued panic setting in on the station, i unexpectedly felt more in control than i normally would have, and i wasn’t losing my cool. i calmly found a man in a red vest who seemed to be an employee of the train and asked him if there was a bus that i needed to take to continue on to zermatt. he pointed me to a bus on the other side of the platform, and i thanked him graciously as i left him. as i passed the small crowd of confused tourists, i noticed one guy standing alone on the fringe with a lost look on his face. it was a look i was all too familiar with. it expressed exactly how i had felt any time on this trip when i felt completely helpless or lost and couldn’t understand any of the languages being spoken around me, and didn’t know what to do to remedy it. i had felt it in paris when i’d had trouble figuring out public transit and couldn’t get any parisians to help me, i had felt it in austria during “the hitchhike,” i had felt it in northern germany when my friend had been late picking me up and i didn’t even know if i was in the right city and couldn’t understand a word that was written or spoken by any of the drunk clubgoers around me, and i had felt it countless more times that i can’t even now remember. i threw him a lifeline.
“hey man, if you’re headed to zermatt, follow me.” he looked over at me, relieved to hear english. the truth is, he was of asian descent, so i wasn’t even sure if he was an english speaker, but he picked up his backpack and followed me over to the bus. people had started to figure out the train company had a contingency and were now starting to swarm, but my new friend and i were able to squeeze on to the first one just before it pulled away from the station, leaving dozens of people to wait for the next bus to scoop them up. there was no seating left, so we had to stand in the middle with our giant packs for a 20 minute ride. not the most comfortable thing ever, but at least we didn’t have to wait at the platform for the next ride in the cold of the quickly fading dusk. up here in the mountains, once the sun was gone, it got cold. fast.
on the ride up i learned a little about scott. he was american, from california, and working as a senior project manager at an aerospace company. he was currently on a quick vacation after finishing up a business trip to europe, and had decided to detour over to the swiss alps for an off-season snowboard session before heading back home. scott was a cool dude, i really liked him. he had a calm demeanor and was dressed a little too neatly to be of the backpacker variety i was accustomed to meeting on my trip. he also had a more introverted nature than a lot of the people i had been meeting, and i think something from his corporate background had called out to me on that platform, i can’t quite nail it down, but there’s something ethereal about people who have something in common with you that just shouts out to you in the strangest moments, if you are open to it.
as the bus pulled to a stop, everyone piled out and realized that we were still not at zermatt, but rather another train station. i called to scott in the crowd and pointed at another train that appeared to be ready to leave. i walked over to a machine and bought a ticket, and scott followed suit. scott joked about the chaos and lack of appropriate signage to let people know where they were supposed to be going. i laughed and sympathized with him, sharing with him that this had recently happened to me and this was why i seemed to be moving along without incident. as we rode along in the train i asked him more about his plans for zermatt and if he had any suggestions on where to stay. he suggested a small hotel he had reservations at, but after hearing the price i knew my budget wouldn’t allow for that. we exited the train and went our separate ways, but agreed to meet back up for pizza an hour later after i’d had time to secure a place to sleep that night.
i wandered over the bridge to the west side of zermatt and relievedly located a tired but charming looking building that could only be a backpacker hostel, called jugendherberge matterhorn hostel. the building looked old, and it was old, marked by lots of old, aged wood, some areas in mismatched colors like the trimming or where signs were posted to let passersby know that this was the cheapest place to find a bed in zermatt (which still isn’t that cheap. i paid 30 swiss francs per night, roughly about $30 usd – which is on the more expensive end for european hostels – but i had come to expect this from switzerland. it’s one of the most expensive countries to travel to in europe). i eagerly entered the building, happy to get out of the cold, and got a room. the proprietor was a friendly swiss guy who had laughed when i asked if he had any beds available. “it is off season, my friend! there’s nobody here!”
as i got settled in, one of my 2 roommates politely introduced himself to me. the room was average dorm size and the beds not particularly large or comfortable, but they would do, and out of the 6 beds in the room, we 3 occupants were squished into the corner via our assigned beds. i joked with my new roommates about expecting more guests. 1 didn’t laugh, a japanese guy who spent every waking moment i saw of him connected to a tablet or a phone. the other, the one who’d introduced himself, snickered appreciatively. jean was a frenchman who was in zermatt for a quick extended weekend of skiing before he returned home and began to look for work. tt sounded like a pretty typical thing to do for someone who lived in the area, since zermatt was near both the italian and french borders.
“and you? where do you call home?” he inquired.
“well i was living in denver, colorado before i left the states,” i answered earnestly. jean suddenly got a very excited look on his face. he enthusiastically shared that he had actually lived in boulder, colorado for the last few years, and loved every minute of it. he had loved the ski resorts in colorado, in fact he said he liked the snow better there than even the alps, but he’d had to leave somewhat abruptly due to some issues with his immigration status. i responded sympathetically, but i noticed a hint of pain in his voice. not interested in glossing over meaningful things, i pressed him for detail.
“hold on, what did you mean about your ‘immigration status?’ did you get deported?”
“not exactly,” he replied, and then slowly began to recount how he’d been in a 3 year relationship with a girl who had finished up her degree at the university of colorado (he also had attended there as part of an exchange program, and then had come back after graduating). things had run the usual course, being the most amazing and meaningful relationship that he had ever been in during the first year, but the following year, after she had graduated, things had started to get very tense. his girlfriend had landed a great job right out of college, but he was having trouble finding work as a french immigrant (despite that his english is good and he is a college graduate). they had started to talk about marriage, and citizenship for him – and had even filed paperwork, but the timing just wasn’t right, especially since he didn’t have money or work, and they had been fighting a lot. suddenly he had been offered a great opportunity that he would need to move back to france for, but the girlfriend had been very unsympathetic, even hostile, and had started delivering ultimatums. she refused to leave her job to relocate to france (for the life of me i don’t understand that one), and she refused to convert their relationship to a long distance one, regardless of the time constraints. jean was trapped in a tough spot, as she had threatened to break up with him if he made the wrong move, but he didn’t really have a “right” move. during this rough patch, there had been some complications with the immigration paperwork and he had been denied an extension on his visa. the only option if he wanted to stay in the US would be marriage. jean then made the difficult decision to end his relationship and return to france. he had been back in europe for 2 months and decided he needed to get away to clear his head, so he’d arrived that afternoon in zermatt.
once again, here i was talking with a complete stranger, and they were spilling their very personal and intimate stories to me, with seemingly no concern or inhibition.
i was fascinated by jean’s story, and i could feel his pain, despite the fact that he was maturely trying to mask or dull its effect on him. he shared that he hadn’t been sure if he was in love with her, especially during all the conflict and stress they had been enduring, but now he knew. he had been in love with her. and now it was over. for some reason, i always find myself drawn most to the people in this world whom have experienced real loss. people who have been bruised and cut, whose wounds are never too far from the surface, but whom still find a way to carry on. jean had been cut, but he wasn’t bleeding out. he was carrying on.
i had been so enraptured with jean’s story that i forgot that scott was waiting for me to go get a pizza. i apologized to jean and excused myself, and making plans to get a 6 pack of beer and drink it at the hostel after tomorrow’s events (he was going skiing and i aimed to go for a long hike) and finish the conversation. he said he was interested in my story as well, and i promised to share it with him.
i met back up with scott at his hotel on the other side of the river after a sprint through the brisk night air. we wandered down the empty streets, devoid of any activity and few options for dinner. we made it all the way back down to the train station where we found a pizza shop that was open for another 30 minutes. we each got a pizza and a beer, and resumed our conversation. we mainly talked about backpacking, where i had started & my basic route, and i shared little tidbits of knowledge i had picked up along the way. overall it was a good night, and the pizza was a welcome sustenance, as i had not realized how hungry i had gotten.
the next morning i arose early and procured a map from the front desk of the hostel. the proprietor was preparing the breakfast (available for an extra 8 francs. holy hell, switzerland is expensive), but there was no one in the lobby. since he wasn’t overly occupied, i asked him if he had any suggestions for walking trails. i had a couple ideas, but i was quickly realizing that this area had hundreds of walking paths and it was not easy to get to the trail heads without knowing exactly where you’re going or taking a gondola. gondolas in zermatt are expensive. i was not interested in paying for transport to get somewhere i could walk, so that eliminated a lot of the trails i thought might be possibilities. also, according to the proprietor, during this weird time of year at the very end of october, the weather does weird things, so while there isn’t a ton of snow on the ski slopes, the snow still falls and it turns quickly to ice. and since the mountain is empty, the resorts don’t have a heavy incentive to keep up the same maintenance on the trails as they do in the summer or winter. so they simply close some of the walking paths. after crossing off a majority of the interesting looking hikes, there were still 2 available that I had been interested in: the 5 seenweg, or five lakes walk, or another more difficult trail that definitely had some ice, but i could probably scurry around if i was careful. it was my intention to attempt this hike. i wanted a challenge.
i spread a map out on the table and started marking entry and exit points to the trails, as well as break points and then started readying my pack with cliff bars and my camelback water reservoir. in my focused preparation, i had failed to notice that a few other people had entered the lobby and began eating breakfast. they had all been watching me, and to be fair, i did look a little weird compared to everyone else in the hostel. the rest of the hostel guests were vacationers who were here off-season for a short jaunt in the alps without crowds, they all clearly had decent jobs and were well dressed, whereas i, with my scraggly bright red ginger beard, furrowed brow, and warm, well-traveled-in clothing… well i looked like i’d been sleeping under a bridge for the last few years.
“where are you going?” a delicate voice with an korean accent whispered to me. to my right was a petite woman eating breakfast with a playful smile. i think she had been watching me for a couple minutes.
“oh, just gonna head up to the fresh air and clear my head. not entirely sure just yet, but i’ll figure it out as i go.” i smiled politely. ordinarily i’d slow down and make friends, but morning was starting to evaporate, and i had come to the mountains for one thing only: to commune with nature by myself. i had spent too much time in cities the past 2 months, and this was to be my escape.
“wow cool, you are mountain man” she giggled. i cracked a smile.
“ah no, not really. i just like to be outside.” as much as i would love to think of myself as a true mountain man, and as much as i probably looked the part, i’m not. i’ve only been tested a couple times in the wild, and i had experts with me and plenty of supplies, and never on anything longer than a couple nights. but i didn’t mind letting this pretty lady’s imagination make its own assumptions about me in the meantime.
we chatted plainly for a few minutes while i finished my preparations, exchanging the usual information – where are you from, what brings you here type questions. i was surprised to learn that katherine was actually from new york, not south korea like i had expected (to be fair, she was born and raised in seoul, south korea, and now worked for a major airline with new york as her base). i noticed another pair of eyes in the room curiously looking over at us, eavesdropping on the conversation. i was trying to figure out how to excuse myself politely when katherine respectfully but quickly asked “can i come with you?”
“uh, sure! yeah if you really want to…” i had been caught off guard. i looked her up and down quickly and noticed that she was in shape, but definitely did not have the right gear. i also knew that manhattan didn’t exactly have a wealth of challenging hikes available, so there was a good chance that this might not be a good idea. but i also had been trying my best lately to say “yes” to as many things as i could, in keeping with the mantra of the traveler, so i tried my best to adjust my expectation.
“oh thank you! are you sure?” she could sense the hesitation in my voice.
“yeah definitely, it’ll be fun! go get a backpack and some warm clothes on and be quick about it. we need to leave soon if we’re going to get back before dark.” she scurried up the stairs and disappeared.
“hey, I couldn’t help but overhear you’re going on a hike… any chance i could tag along as well? i’m wesley.” a hand to my left was extended to me. i shook the hand and looked up to see who was attached to it. a tall, good looking canadian guy was standing there with a smile on his face.
“yeah sure, why not, grab your stuff. we leave in 5 minutes.” wesley bolted out of the room to grab his things. what just happened? my plan had been to go on a hike and push myself a little physically, and suddenly i had just become ranger rick, guiding a bunch of tourists through a place i had never been before… the swiss alps. and i still didn’t technically know where i was going. i looked across the room to see the proprietor of the hostel wiping his hands with a dish cloth, laughing.
“you should go on the 5 seenweg hike. it would be unwise to take them on the other one,” he offered. i shook my head and laughed. i couldn’t have predicted this if i tried. about 15 minutes later wesley and katherine had made their way down the stairs and were ready. they didn’t have any food for the day, however, so we needed to stop by a grocery store. i wasn’t thrilled, but i knew i couldn’t take them on a 7 or 8 hour hike with no food, so we walked 15 minutes across town to the only grocery around. while there, despite my stubborn pride in having already had food ready to go, i picked up a few fresh fruit items, knowing it would be more appetizing than just my cliff bars. we finished up the shopping and headed for the trail head. i was silently thankful the other two had forced me to go shopping. now i could have a real lunch.
it took us about 15 minutes to get back across town, and then another 15 minutes just to find the trailhead, as the mountain neighborhood roads were not marked clearly and didn’t follow any logic other than what the terrain offered when they were built. we were way behind schedule at this point, and i was starting to get grumpy about it. i decided to just keep my mouth shut and lead on.
katherine and wesley chatted cheerfully behind me, and it wasn’t long before we had our first full view of the matterhorn and the zermatt valley below. my attitude problem was instantly gone. the views on these mountains were absolutely breathtaking, and there wasn’t a soul around us to ruin it.
the 5 seenweg, or five lakes trail, is exactly what it sounds like: a lovely meandering walk that takes you through five different bodies of water in a large loop around the mountainside, fraught with clear and direct views of the monolithic matterhorn. i will say that, to call these bodies of water “lakes” might be a bit of a stretch. a couple were little more than ponds (particularly grunsee and moosjisee), but they are still beautiful. it isn’t a particularly grueling hike, but it does have a few sections that can get pretty steep, and will definitely wear you out if you don’t take your time.
ordinarily this hike can be completed in 3 hours if you pay to take a tram and don’t stop too often for pictures, but good luck with the latter of those two components; everywhere you look seems like it is straight out of national geographic coffee table literature. Adding to our time crunch was my stubborn refusal to take the tram, so we started our hike straight from zermatt, trekking to the little hamlet of findeln (which is only accessible by foot, or skis if the season is right), and then onward up the mountain to the actual 5 seenweg walk, and ultimately walking all the way back down into zermatt again.
during the hike, i got to know wesley and katherine quite well, as we labored through our trek together. since the 5 seenweg is lower in elevation, and doesn’t have any true summits in it, the temperature stayed well within manageable, and we only encountered light ice a couple of times, none of which was dangerous. this was a relief to me, as i wasn’t sure if the tennis shoes the other two were wearing would be adequate on the trail, but they held up fine.
as we walked along, wesley’s youthful energy shone through, and he excitedly talked about his life up in canada, how he had grown up extremely far north, up in the arctic circle, where it could get extremely cold, but there weren’t as many scenic mountains to climb like in the alps. katherine meanwhile seemed overwhelmed by the beauty that was all around us, always stopping to take photos at any chance she could get. i didn’t mind that at all, as it offered me an opportunity to dig my camera out as well and snap some photos. i had needed to make sure that i kept moving us along because i knew that once the sun set, it was going to get very dark and very cold, and we would be stranded. so i continually prodded the two to keep moving, and i felt bad about it, because i also wanted to stop and enjoy the landscape as much as possible.
we made it to the highest point of the hike, to stellisee lake, and as we were snapping photos, we noticed a commotion off to our left. about a hundred yards away was a herd of free-roaming mountain goats. we quickly scrambled over and began following the goats, taking photos and videos, watching the mischievous little devils battle each other, ramming their horns into each other and trying to establish their dominance. at one point, i got a little too close and one of the adult goats backed me down, chasing after my gopro camera as if to inform me that i was not welcome among their herd. eventually the goat herd got far enough from the path that we let them go and resumed our trek, cognizant of the impending darkness that would be descending soon.
but along the way it occurred to me that i was extremely glad that these two strangers had joined me. when the day began, i had a very specific plan and idea for what i wanted this day to be, and suddenly i had allowed that to be wrestled away from me, and i had been a little sour about it for a few fleeting minutes. i had started the day wanting to conquer a mountain, to climb to the top of a summit and take some risks, and feel a triumph over something. but now here i was, on the back half of a 7 hour journey, and i was actually thankful that i hadn’t done that. i had changed my perspective, and i was now on a more leisurely and more enjoyable trek with a couple of beautiful and innocent souls who would likely have overpaid to board a gondola and ride up to the top of some scenic overlook that would undoubtedly have been breathtaking, but they wouldn’t have earned it. but this? this was work. this was sweat. and i could see that despite the exhaustion, they were having the time of their lives. i felt proud of that.
but i was also humbled by my new friends. they had taught me something. they had taught me that only doing what i want didn’t necessarily mean i was going to have the best experience possible, and they had confirmed for me that the mantra of the traveler, that “say yes” attitude and “stay open” mentality was the only true way to travel and authentically experience the world.
as the sun set behind the mighty matterhorn, we quickened our pace, trying to beat the darkness back to zermatt. our legs were worn and exhausted, but we made it back into town just as dusk turned to night and the streetlights flickered to life in sleepy zermatt. perfect timing. a perfect day.
today’s track is a piece of relaxed folktronica beauty by howard, from his brand new album, religion. put this on while you commute to work in the morning and you haven’t quite woken up yet. follow the slowly growing playlist below to continue receiving new songs. enjoy…