looking back on my time in croatia, montenegro, and bosnia & herzegovina, it was a strange time, but a wonderful one. i was traveling with a friend, which i had not had the luxury of for most of my trip, so i was never alone during these weeks. but before that, i had just begun to grow accustomed to being alone, and was starting to enjoy the introspection that came with it, and the peace of mind that had started to evolve and emerge from my thoughts. nevertheless, traveling with my friend dave, who was not a seasoned traveler, forced me to take command of situations with more authority and efficiency than i had ever needed to, and exposed to me just how far my development had come since my early days in london, paris and berlin, of following other travelers i had met like a lost puppy. i was now the veteran, and it took me by surprise.
putting together this video was really fun, not only because i wrote and recorded the sountrack, but also being able to re-live the scenes and memories. the balkan states are fascinating, co-mingling the hope of the future with the tragedy of the past, there are few places i’ve been where both sides of that story were always nearby, and i still regret not being able to make it further into the balkans to explore all the other interesting countries in the region. i will return. someday.
it was dark, and we hadn’t seen a street sign, a building, even a streetlamp in over an hour. we had seen nary a clue that we were even traveling in the right direction, but had seen no other roads headed in this direction on the map, so we pressed on faithfully into the night, expecting any minute to find a sign.
the roads toward the interior of croatia were much smaller and more narrow than the decidedly more oft-traveled corridor of the adriatic coastline, thusly making it more difficult for me to progress toward my destinations at the breakneck (and slightly illegal) pace that i had grown accustomed to in rural europe. despite my frustration, i found a silver lining in the intricacies of the winding country roads, and the fun that came with the need to test my maneuvering skills at a high degree of mastery. dave, on the other hand, didn’t share my navigational enthusiasm.
eventually we found the turnoff we had been looking for and made our way through a tiny town with few amenities or notable attractions. a light snow was now falling and the ground had accumulated a sheer white layer, making it almost difficult to look directly at with the bright headlights of the car beaming directly onto it. i approached each turn with a degree of caution, conscious of the fact that i had turned down the rental company on their offer of all-weather tires only a week ago.
dave guided us to a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that he had found on airbnb. as we pulled into the designated parking space, i humorously remarked, “…and this is how it ends. in the pit of some croatian farmer’s barn, never to be seen again.” dave laughed and exited the vehicle, walking into the house of the property owner to handle the check-in duties while i gathered the bags. a few minutes later we were claiming beds in our apartment for the night and unwinding from a long day of driving.
it was a homely little apartment, but it was just what we needed. it was quaint and quiet, and removed from any hustle or bustle of a normal city. very different from the place we had stayed the night before in the oceanside town of zadar. a self-proclaimed “design hostel,” it was clean and minimalist with eccentric aesthetics. we were the only ones staying in a place that had capacity for at least 80, and our shared-bunk dorm felt like a sick mix between a hospital and a room from charlie’s chocolate factory. tall ceilings, narrow spaces, the walls were candy-striped with disturbingly contrasted orange and white and the bunks had stiff shutters that could close off from the outside world, allowing the sleeper to create a cocoon. i wondered if i had missed the part where they assigned me a straightjacket before locking me in the room.
zadar had actually been a pleasant surprise, and i had found myself wishing that i’d been able to stay there longer than the twelve hours i gave it, especially if i could come back some day in the summer. that
evening, as i walked along the harbor admiring the sunset, i stumbled upon the Morske orgulje, or “sea organ,” an architectural object and experimental musical instrument that produces sound through a series of pipes inset the marble ground i walked upon, powered by the waves of the ocean that brushed up against the side of the marble and into the pipes, pushing air out and producing the unpredictable chorus. it was truly one of the most uniquely creative things that i had seen on my travels, and also one of the most unexpected.
after a few minutes of unwinding, a knock at the door sounded. it was the daughter of the property owner with a gift: homemade rakija. dave and i both expressed our deep gratitude and accepted the gift, but when we closed the door, we exchanged more knowing glances.
“oh man. good thing they only gave us these small glasses, this stuff smells stronger than the cherry stuff we had the other night,” dave warned cautiously.
“it is!” i spat out as i coughed down my first sip. “way stronger! i think this is peach flavor too.” we did our best to finish the drink (which i estimate to have been about 2.5 shots worth of alcohol), but neither of us could make it all the way through. apparently this was the old man’s special recipe, and he distilled it right there on property. impressive, but not for the faint of heart.
the next morning we arose early and set out to find plitvice lakes national park. after a 20 minute drive, the windy snow-covered road led us to a parking lot that seemed out of place with the rest of landscape that we had grown accustomed to seeing. we deduced that this must be the place.
following an oddly unnecessary footbridge over to what appeared to be an empty visitor center, a tourist bus pulled into the lot and parked while we attempted to figure out where to go and how to pay for whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. i laughed as 5 people got off the bus that could hold probably 50. eventually we found a walking path and assumed that if there was a pay booth somewhere, clearly no one cared if we paid or it would have been more obviously located. we started down the path perplexedly defiant.
three minutes later we were staring down a cliff surveying a wintery panorama of emerald blue rivers and lakes fed by icy white waterfalls. i had never seen anything like it. like a croatian iguazu, we had found a legitimate natural gem in the harsh balkan cold, and there was no one around to spoil our enjoyment of it. dave and i excitedly bound down the switchbacks until we were at the water’s edge, walking on man-made wooden planked walkways across the water and staring up at the looming waterfalls.
the ice and frigidity of winter had obviously restricted the water flow, somewhat muting the normally powerful display of water in nature in this protected croatian landmark. but we knew we were getting to see a very different side of an oft-photographed sight, and the narnia-like effect that the white winter had on the place gave the atmosphere an eery yet striking touch that made me forget about the bitter cold and enjoy the moment.
dave and i separated for a while, wandering toward different parts of the park and periodically meeting back up in different areas to make sure we weren’t lost. during that time, i tried to focus on being present, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future or the past, or letting my mind wander too far along pointless reveries. i was getting better at this. i remembered back to the beginning of my journey, being a total mental mess, worried about where i was going in my future, sad and victimized by my past, and always paranoid and conscious of the strangers around me and what they thought of me. rarely did i have these concerns any longer. occasionally i might be aware that i was out of place in a situation, or i might want to impress someone appropriately, but seldom did i have any social anxiety about my foreign status or my ragged appearance. i just didn’t care anymore, and i felt liberated. and nowhere more did that carefree comfort truly reveal itself than when i was
away from congested society and out into the raw of nature. the worries of life and society seemed to fall by the wayside whenever i wandered a dirt trail among the trees and the rushing water and an unending sky. a light snow and fair breeze coerced the water gently from its course atop the cliff to the basin below, transforming a calm stream into a drifting cascade. it was peaceful here, and i never wanted to leave.
dave and i reconvened aboard a ferry that carried us across the main lake and to a new section of the park for us to explore for a few more hours. eventually the cold won out, however, and dave and i decided it best to seek warmer temperatures.
The next day we were on the road again, and before long we were slipping and sliding our way through the streets of zagreb, the capital city of croatia. a heavy, wet snow had been falling for hours before we arrived, and still fell, as we searched for parking near our hostel. we checked into yet another modern “design hostel,” impressively marked with comfortable yet minimalist furniture, modern decorative art, and clean lines throughout the architecture. croatia knew how to put together a solid hostel.
we spent another pair of days exploring the old and new in a city that dates back at least a thousand years. exploring old churches and cemeteries, and a few bars in between, zagreb seemed to be a large city without much of the draw that tourists journeyed to the adriatic coast for. but there was charm in that. it was a different side of croatia, more business-like, more straight to the point, and the unassuming nature of it put one at ease. it was easy to go about your day and take the city in without feeling the pressure to make sure you had checked off all the necessary boxes to prove to yourself it had been worthwhile.
our time came to an end however, and dave and i said our goodbyes to croatia. we rose early before the sun and city, and sped hurriedly to the airport. in our early morning haze, we pulled up to the front gate of the departures section and began preparing to offload our luggage. we both sat uncomfortably for a moment, not sure what was wrong. suddenly, it hit me.
“damn! this is a rental car! where’s the rental office?!” i exclaimed, suddenly wide awake. dave looked back at me blankly. panic set in, we were already likely late for an international flight, and we had forgotten to return our rental car.
dave turned on his iphone, hoping he could locate the rental office nearby, while i pressed the gas pedal, determined to find it the old-fashioned way.
“i don’t get it. google maps says we’re on top of it,” dave said, perplexed. we both looked around. nothing. i drove to the end of the airport road. nothing but office buildings, no rental lots. i turned around and went back to the entrance of the airport loop. dave kept poking at his phone screen with futility, much like he had the entirety of our time in the balkans. google maps didn’t have as high an adoption rate here as it did the rest of europe and the US thus far, hence the wild inaccuracies we had experienced almost everywhere we had gone.
after a few minutes of driving around in a panic and yelling obscenities at dave’s iphone, i hooked my head left and searched east, across an empty field and down what appeared to just be a service road. i whipped the car illegally across traffic and sped down the road without saying a word. dave, recognizing that i was in one of my zones, said nothing and held on for dear life, trusting that i knew what i was doing. i barreled into a parking lot and up to the front door of the europcar rental office. dave stared at me incredulously.
“how did you see this?!” he exclaimed as we walked briskly to the door. i didn’t answer, frustrated as i realized that no one was at the office yet. someone was late to work. annoyed, i repeatedly rang the bell and pounded on the door, unconcerned that no one could hear it.
a few minutes later another car entered the lot and 2 men in ties rushed in to open the office. embarrassed, he was aware that i knew he was late. i said nothing and noticed that he was working at a pace faster than what he normally might. he processed our paperwork and drove us back to the departure gate. dave and i grabbed our bags and sprinted through check-in and security, barely making our flight.
as the plane climbed into the morning sky, i exhaled deeply, relieved. dave began laughing, unprovoked, and it was only a matter of seconds before i was laughing with him.
“i don’t ever want to fly with you again” i said jokingly, and our laughter grew even louder.
i would miss croatia. and bosnia and montenegro as well, and the mysteries of what lay beyond the boundaries that dave and i had pushed haunted me. i would be back someday, to explore sarajevo, and bucharest, and albania, and macedonia. to sail from the northern tip of croatia all the way down to the southern isles of greece, when the summer sun beats down upon the blue sea and is cooled by the mist on the skin and the tradewinds blowing through the hair. i would most definitely be back someday.
but now i returned to amsterdam, to celebrate the new year with the dutch, at the party of a lifetime.
today’s song has been out for a few months now, but the more i listen to it, the more it becomes a part of me. it’s called “dark bird is home,” and it’s by the tallest man on earth. it’s a song about separation, and learning to grow and cope with change and loss. this song makes me feel so many emotions when i hear it, and it has earned a place on my eternal rotation. tallest man will be performing in denver, co this summer and i plan on attending. feel free to join me.
we arrived in split in the middle of the night. after a couple hours of getting lost in the dark of the midnight bosnian countryside, we had found a main highway that led us across the border into croatia. dave had dozed off and i laid down on the accelerator, taking full advantage of the expansive and luxurious toll road highway cutting through the middle of croatia. periodically dave would stir awake, and i would bring the car back to a normal speed so he didn’t get nervous, but the second his eyes were closed, i had the machine back above 120 miles per hour.
despite the success of cultural exchange that had taken place in the restaurant between dave and the restaurant owner, i had been disappointed that i’d not been able to convince dave to stay longer in bosnia. bosnia & herzegovina was some sort of wild frontier for me; a place i could attempt to get off the grid again and find some truly unique experiences, and maybe even push deeper. i had begun to realize there were so many cultures in the balkans that i knew next to nothing about, and now my interest was piqued. but alas, now i was in split. and instead of being able to enjoy it, i was thinking of neighboring lands that seemed never further away than they suddenly did now, despite never having thought of them before that day. to say that i didn’t partially hold a little silent resentment toward dave at the time would have been a lie, and for a couple days there was definitely a tension between us that i had created.Continue reading a croatian christmas party, in split→
i had been in genoa for a couple days doing nothing when i finally received an email from dave, written in a brief and rushed manner:
“finally got rebooked. boarding now from germany, see you in a couple hours.”
a few hours later i was wandering around the empty streets of genoa trying to find my friend dave before he got too lost and i couldn’t find him. i rounded a corner and saw him standing underneath the facade of a large university building, squinting at the signs in italian, searching for any kind of english or guidance as to where he should be going.
“need some help, gringo?!” i called out as i approached. he spun around and looked at me and burst into laughter. i gave him a big hug, grabbed his bag and walked him to the hostel, where the hostel manager, a thin, lively man named carlo, was giving a few of the guests a little lesson on how to prepare noodles in italy. we got dave checked in and situated in the dorm room and hurried back down to be a part of the action. Continue reading a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy→
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.
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.