Tag Archives: travel

an existential crisis in florence, italy

i arrived in florence the next afternoon amid a contemplative daze.  so many questions about my past and my future had been raised, and it was too easy to take the bait and wander down tangents of useless what-ifs and might-haves.  i wanted to sit down, focus, lock myself in a room somewhere and hash everything out like it was some kind of math problem, but i was old enough to know now that this was not how it works.  there was no quadratic equation to one’s problems or happiness.  there was only awareness and progress, and every life, no matter how short or long, was just a process of evolution or devolution.  i needed to focus on the present and keep moving.  besides, i had exited the train and wandered directionless while my thoughts had run free in an oblivious daydream.  now i had no idea where i was.

i was indeed in florence, one of the artistic and cultural icons of the world, home to the powerful medici family (so powerful they were able to get two of their family members to be elected pope), birthplace of the italian rennaissance, and home of such historic titans like machiavelli, the poet dante, galileo, michaelangelo, raphael, donatello, leonardo da vinci, and master splinter (ninja turtle joke ftw!!!!). as soon as i was paying attention again, it didn’t take long for the ghosts of greatness to begin lingering in every shadow and corner of this magnificent city. Continue reading an existential crisis in florence, italy

Advertisements

solitude and self-discovery in venice, italy

i arrived in venice rejuvenated.  the peace and solitude of nice in the winter time had been exactly what i needed, and now i entered italy with a vigor and excitement.  but i also spent a lot of time reflecting in the french riviera, and i was now even more aware of the effects the journey was having on me.  i was more in tune with my reactions and emotions, and rather than shy away from the “why” of things, i was now embracing and dissecting it all.  i was more open to experiences and people, and less intent on “conquering” locations and checking off list items, and more content to patiently absorb.  i was indeed slowing down, but it wasn’t a bad thing.

i collected my pack at baggage claim and took a bus across the bridge and into venice.  a thick, damp fog had descended from the dolomite mountains down to the floating city, limiting my visibility and relegating me to watching the raindrops collect and race each other from one side of my bus window to the other.  when the bus pulled in, new instincts kicked in as i oriented myself directionally and then crossed east over a bridge and into the heart of venice.

people attempt to stay dry in venice by walking on short installed platforms that reach just above the flood’s reach

i was confused and startled as i crossed the bridge.  the wet haze from the fog was beginning to clear and separate, revealing a strange, snaking system of Continue reading solitude and self-discovery in venice, italy

seeking refuge in nice, france.

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.

a few minutes later Continue reading seeking refuge in nice, france.

chefchaouen, morocco: the blue pearl of north africa

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.

harmony hotela 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

Morocco. “Medina Navigation: there is none”

i awoke with a minor hangover and a concerned tourguide urging everyone to get ready with a little more haste than usual.  i was too haggard to question why, so i stuffed my clothes into my backpack and loaded myself into the van.  after we had been driving about an hour, our tour guide, zuzu, explained to us that there were extremely large rainclouds unexpectedly approaching and we needed to hurry if we had any chance of making it up and through the mountain pass in the atlas mountains before the storm settled in above us.  zuzu was uncharacteristically and visibly nervous, and after a few follow-up questions we were able to determine that there was a high chance of heavy flooding coming with this storm, and that was cause enough for some concern among the group.  the middle of the desert is not where you want to be in the middle of a flash flood, and neither is a narrow mountain pass with one way in and one way out.  our driver stepped on the accelerator and began whipping the van back and forth along the curvy mountain roads as the rain began to come down.  i was suddenly aware of how few guardrails existed on this perilous road, with steep cliffs shooting straight down into nothing for hundreds of feet, leaving no room for any margin of error. Continue reading Morocco. “Medina Navigation: there is none”

morocco: a vicarious view

sorry about the lack of posts lately, i’ve been down in the costa rican jungle with no access to internet.  i promise to get back on the normal posting schedule next week, but to make up for it this week, i’m sharing my morocco video a little early.  if you’ve wondered what it’s like setting foot in this fascinating country, you need look no further than this video here.  enjoy…

morocco, pt 1. marrakech: as-salām ‘alaykum

as my plane approached low over the desert city landscape of marrakech, i was a confusion of thoughts and feelings.  i was really excited, and ready for adventure in the unknown, but i also had never been to a third world country on my own without any help before, or africa for that matter.  i had no idea what to expect, and this also would be my first time to travel to a country with such a significant muslim presence, and that also made me a little nervous.  it’s one thing to be open-minded and religiously tolerant in the USA, but things shift dramatically when you leave home and suddenly you’re the minority, especially in these times we live in.  you begin to realize how little you know about the world, no matter how “aware” and “informed” you consider yourself back home.

zuzu expertly educated us on details of moroccan culture i never would have known
zuzu expertly educated us on details of moroccan culture i never would have known

which is why i hired a guide for my first week in morocco.  when i landed, i still hadn’t booked an exiting flight yet, but i had an idea that i would be in the country for more than two weeks and less than three, so i figured the best way to get my bearings about me was to hop in with a guided tour until i felt comfortable to strike out on my own.  i know some adventurers would view this as cheating, but this turned out to be one of the best decisions i made on my entire trip.

the wheels hit the ground with a harsh bump, and the plane bounced high back into the air, frightening passengers and waking me from one of my usual daydreams, Continue reading morocco, pt 1. marrakech: as-salām ‘alaykum

spain, pt 5. seville: the four horsemen

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.

Continue reading spain, pt 5. seville: the four horsemen

spain, pt 4. madrid: the tourist and the traveler

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

spain, pt 3. madrid: the seeker, and a few tapas

fountain with a viewthat 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

the bon moustache hostel, barcelona

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.
high alleys in la latina
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.

tapas in el tigre

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.

IMG_0657
drinks with martín

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).

colored boxes over the square
this statue looks like a seeker…

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…

and for those following along on spotify