Leaving Sevilla

I’ve begun counting down the hours until I leave for home; it’s even easier now that the number is less than ten. As a matter of fact, the number is now 6. How am I spending these last hours? Right now, I’m trying my best to eat an entire funghi pizza while TV surfing; but it’s a sad state of affairs when I’m more drawn to commercials than actual programming. My mind wandered, and I decided to blog to pin it down.

The Torre de Oro framed by summer leavesAs Derek could tell you, I am hard-pressed to finish a thought if I’m not telling it to someone. Thinking without dictating is like trying to put together a puzzle around a baby (my sister will understand this metaphor). As a child, the best way for me to sort through my feelings was to argue with the mirror. Sometimes I will spend hours thinking around an issue, the harder I clutch at it the more it drifts away, yet the solution becomes clear within a few sentences of trying to explain it to someone else.

The last of my friends to leave the city, I spent the evening marking off a to-do list that included cake, hazelnut gelato, and thin-crust pizza. These are my favorite kinds of to-do lists, and yet I procrastinated: I window-shopped for colorful strappy sandals and last-minute souvenirs, bought a bright blue summer purse, and discovered a fresh-made pasta store. I felt some kind of pang when I saw the pasta store; I’d been looking for fresh pasta all year. But I couldn’t try any now; I’ll have to wait until next year. I shoved the pang aside.

People picnic by the river, overlooking the bridge and its memorable circle architectureLater on, while admiring the street glowing orange against a deepening cerulean sky, I revisited that pang. What was it all about? I know where to buy fresh pasta in Ann Arbor… but I won’t be returning to that familiar semi-squalor in run-down rental housing in a college town. I’ll return to a suburb across the state without sidewalks, where everyone is is quiet by 9pm and lights are out by 11pm — it will actually be scary to walk in the streets at night; people are suspicious of you on the street even if you’re just asking for directions; and you’re not allowed to smile at strangers’ babies. If I take a nap between 2pm and 5pm and eat dinner at 10pm, people will think I’m lazy. All the dogs are on leashes.

A street in the city center of SevilleDespite the economy, Spanish life makes so much sense to me now. There’s balance, there’s beauty, there’s culture, there’s trust. As my Spanish improves, I can see myself living here for a long, long time.

It’s easy to remember the good things about home, too; I’ve had plenty of practice mooning over the things I miss about the United States these past few months. I even have a rudimentary to-do list beyond hanging out with family and friends:

  • Finish the quilt I’m making for Derek’s mom
  • Make the two dresses I bought supplies for a year ago
  • Take the GRE
  • Try a few recipes from Herbivoracious
  • Help clean the house and get rid of some of my junk that’s in storage
  • Go fruit picking, hiking, visit the beach, swim in the pool in the back yard, run around barefoot with my niece, cuddle my kitty cat, drink a pint of craft beer, eat some tasty international food, enjoy local ice cream, get someone to take a picture of me in which I do not look like a pirate

A row of bright red Sevici bikes lined up before the Jardines de MurilloNevertheless, I felt a surge of bitterness as I carried my food purchases home. Despite my homesickness, Sevilla is starting to feel familiar. I’m going to come back for another year, and then how will I feel? We work so few hours we can barely call ourselves employed; with the remaining time, I’m forming relationships with the people and things of this city, even if it’s just change over time. The neighbors across the street are almost done remodeling. Someone broke the foot pedal of the trash dumpster on Calle Urquiza. The trees across the street from the park have bright yellow conical offshoots. The geckos are back, scurrying out of the sun to hide beneath the jasmine vines that now reach halfway into the sidewalk. I recognize this city. I have memories here. I’m going to make more. And after next year, when the idea that this is “home” no longer feels novel but is a simple fact of life, I’m going to leave. And I can never come back; not like this. And that stinks.

Fragrant purple blossoms litter the ground in Prado de San SebastianSo, what exactly do I like about Sevilla?

I like the color of the streets, here. I like the reliable distribution of stores; shoes and bazaars are everywhere, and you can count on a baby clothes store at least once per block. I like the fresh fruit stands that hand you your fruit order wrapped in thick paper cones. I like the fresh, cool mornings and slightly muggy but comfortable evenings. I like hiding from the sun in mid-day, when I’m always sleepy anyway, eating an enormous meal at lunch-time and sleeping it off along with everyone else. I like Spanish.

Wares crowd the streets during the Thurdsay market on Calle FeriaI like my bedroom on the 5th floor and how I can lean over the street and people watch. I like how I’ve arranged my bedroom and the amount of light that comes in through the window. I like crumbling plaster in the city center, the park benches throughout the city that are actually used to socialize and relax outside, the way that I can usually still hear children running around outside and playing when I go to bed at 1am.

I like the dogs who trot happily off their leashes, despite the busy streets and the foot traffic. I like that the train station is a block away, as well as the bus to the airport. A bus to the bus station is only 2 blocks away. At a moment’s notice, I can go to Paris, Rome, Ronda, Córdoba, Cádiz, Madrid. I never have to drive.

Blue, yellow, and green tiles create a repeating pattern

Looking through all my pictures from this past year, I am amazed at the things I have seen and done, and how it already feels so far away. Amsterdam? A lifetime ago! Even London is an old memory. What will I be doing in 5 years that will make Seville feel like a former life? I can’t even begin to imagine.

Luckily I don’t have to yet, because I’m coming back next year.


Hiking in the Picos de Europa

I was afraid to travel alone. I kept scaling back my plans, and then canceling them at the last minute. I blamed it all on being stingy. A weekend in Paris became a weekend in Ronda, which I was always planning to do on the nebulous “next” weekend. When “next” weekend finally comes around, it will be a full itinerary indeed.

And so I stayed in Seville, weekend after weekend, until one week I was homeless. With nowhere to stay, I bit the bullet and bought the necessary transportation. I was going to spend 7 days in 7 places with 4 different hosts, going to the beach and up into the mountains all by myself.

But it didn’t really hit me that I was traveling alone until I was in the mountains, strolling through the black-and-white rocks of the Picos de Europa, bending over tiny orange and yellow orchids with blossoms the size of the fingernail on my pinky; as a matter of fact, I thought about it most while scrambling over pitted rocks to follow a waterfall into a deep, dark cave.

La Cueva de Orandi

The cave was on the edge of a meadow, tucked between trees whose height hid a massive gash in the rock face. It must have been stories high, and as I approached, the walls of the cave abruptly plummeted into a black pit. I climbed inside, carefully avoiding some of the most pristine specimens of cobweb that I have ever seen, and peered over the mossy edge of the furthest rock to watch the water disappear just meters away. I was the world’s smallest dentist looking down the throat of the world’s biggest snake.

I was not very brave about this pre-beginner-level spelunking. Despite remaining well-lit by the full afternoon sun, I jumped and looked all around me near 5 times. There was a strong animal smell that I was still too city-bred to place; could it be a bear? And what was that noise? Was there a noise? Was it me? And I was so very alone. I set up my bright orange backpack near the entrance as a beacon.

After a few seconds watching the water, I looked up and saw a bulbous rock the size of my bedroom hanging directly above me. Noting a similarity to the bulbous fallen rock I was currently perched on, I directly scrambled back out of the cave, satisfied with my bravery for the day.

Alone At Last; But What Is That Smell?

As a matter of fact, climbing the trail was the first time in my trip that I was actually alone. In Ribadesella, on the beach, I spent the full day with a German pilgrim named Willi, who tried to convince me to cancel the rest of my trip and walk all the way to Santiago de Compostela with him. Hopefully in a few weeks when he is finished with his pilgrimage he will send me some pictures from Ribadesella that I can share with you.

But I was glad to be alone in the mountains, and alone I was. There was no one in sight, ahead or behind, although the path was well-trod; I would find out why later. I had a bottle full of water, a package of trail mix, two apples, a baguette, some cheese, and a bar of chocolate-stuffed chocolate  — I think this might be my favorite lunch ever. I ate everything noisily, like a piggy, throwing back my head to pour trail mix directly into my mouth and scooping the melting chocolate bar up with my fingers; I ate the whole bar in one sitting in less than 45 seconds. Sweet Heaven!

After lunch, I had two options: beyond the Cueva de Orandi, I could continue on to the Lagos de Covadonga and try to hitchhike back in time to catch the bus, or I could turn around and… go to another mass in the giant pink cathedral. I decided to press forward, watching the time, turning back if I felt too chicken to hitchhike.

I saw brown mounds the color of fertile dirt with uniform size and character, though some looked squirted and some looked smooshed. They were porous but soft, and flies buzzed all around them and other bugs crawled all over them. What were they? Were they dug up from the earth by insects? Were they old, caved-in gopher mounds?

I saw large hoof-prints, but there were so many. Could these mounds be horse poop? But why was it so large and liquidy? And why did it poop so often? Perhaps it was a great group of horses — a horse-tour of the mountains.

At least it wasn’t bears. I settled on this explanation of “horse tour” for a while, and continued trekking. I followed sheets of sandy-white rock, pitted and dented but with smooth, rounded edges from rushing water. I saw old rural mountain shacks built out of bricks; I had to climb over the fence of one because the gate was wrapped in barbed wire.

At one point, I heard bells. Enchanted, probably, I followed the noise until an orange-brown backside presented itself to me around a bend. A young cow turned its head (with its white, curving horns!) and began to walk toward me. City-bred, I was scared of the cow, and so I ran away, crossed a nearby bridge made out of one large rectangle of stone, sat, and waited. Eventually three cows appeared on the hill across the bridge, meandering about and occasionally taking a chomp from some likely crest of greenery. They ambled toward the river and I watched a cow take a drink from the mountain river. I realized that I had never seen a cow drink before.

The cows seemed as clumsy as I was on the mountain, slipping and sliding over the rock as they pressed forward on the very same trail I was walking. And then, in the distance, I heard a whole cacophony of bells! Climbing higher up the mountain face to increase my vantage, I could see a vaquero herding some 20 cows along the trail. It was a narrow trail, and steeply dropping off into the shallow river down the side of the mountain. I always thought of cows as big, lumbering creatures, and by feeling impressed with this spectacle before me, I had to ask myself: did I think cows would not be able to balance on uneven ground?

At this point, I had run into a french couple who told me I was on the wrong path and not heading to the Lagos de Covadonga at all, but actually back toward Cangas de Onís. They arched their eyebrows at me and looked nervous when I told them I was alone. I briefly wondered about their reaction and how unsurprised strangers are to discover that I am a youngest child, but pushed the thought aside. I turned around and trekked back toward Covadonga, passing two stinky hippies herding another 20 cows, this time including several tiny calves, up the mountain.

I thought this was all great fun while I stood aside and watched them pass, but that was before I had to try dodging sickly-green-turd-covered rocks and is-this-a-cowpie-or-is-it-dirt mounds while declining nearly a foot with every step.

Well, that’s why the trail was so clear.

In Conclusion

When I got back to Covadonga, I saw the French couple waiting for me at the trail head. They told me that I was right after all, and the trail did make its way finally to the Lagos. Bummer. With no time to turn back, I washed my shoes, changed my socks, and went to church again; there is literally nothing else to do in Covadonga. Covadonga has one bar, one giant cathedral on an outcrop overlooking the valley, one small chapel carved into the cliffside above a waterfall, and one boring museum that the staff actually suggested wasn’t worth visiting.

Next time I come to Covadonga, I will plan to stay for a full day so I can complete the hike to the lakes. I will buy another chocolate bar and another bag of trail mix, because they were the most fun to eat. I will bring a working camera. I will wear hiking boots so that I don’t get rude stares at my dirty running shoes. I might do it alone, but I’m not sure.

There Is Something Unusual About This Zoo

Although it can be difficult to find vegetarian fare while traveling, and although it can be frustrating trying to find a high-quality traveling shoe that doesn’t incorporate leather, it is usually the very opposite of difficult to avoid a zoo while traveling.

But that was before I went to Santander.

I climbed a high hill on a peninsula, with a beach on either side and a palace before me. One beach was sandy and calm, and the other was rocky and choppy. Here’s the view to the right:

Palacio Magdaleno on a hill over the beach in Santander

This is the sandy beach below the palace on the hill.

And here’s the view to the left:

Playa Camello in Santander: flowers overlook an inlet littered with diagonally jutting rocks.

This is Playa Camello, and further on is Playa Sardinero, where I got hazelnut-flavored ice-cream from Regma and walked barefoot along the shore.

So I plopped down by the flowers and had a picnic of pintxos and fresh fruit, listening to the waves crash against the rocks.

Finished with my picnic, I went for a walk around the peninsula, making my way along the shores and before the grounds of the palace. Immediately I found myself facing a giant crag surrounded by a dried-up moat filled with black, white, and spotted ducks. The moat was lined with gated-up arches, and it looked like the perfect spot for a bear. It was only then that I realized I was in an old zoo; the zoo was just part of the path around the peninsula, open-air and free to the public.

It seemed the zoo was closed, and I was even a bit disappointed. I could see the long shore of Sardinero Beach curving off to the right behind me and the great sea going on without end to the other side. I thought that I should like to live on that giant crag myself.

And then I saw the penguins.

They were sleeping, piled on top of each other like dirty dead seagulls. They did not look shiny or goofy or remotely like the mafia. They looked sleepy and bird-y and bored. They were depressing, so I hurried on.

And long story short: this zoo did nothing to make me feel better about zoos. You would feel pretty bad about zoos, too, if you were there. You would probably not even take your children, who are too young to think about the ethics of zoos. This is because you would not feel like explaining the concept of death. You would have to do this because all of the animals looked dead.

How would you caption these pictures?

A limp form dangles from a stone sloop, half in the water and half out of the water.

A limp form droops over the side of a stony slope, half in the water and half out of the water.

A white seal with a spotted stomach floats through the water belly-up.

A white seal with a black-speckled stomach floats by belly-up.

A group of sea lions lay covered in dirt at the bottom of a dry pit.

A group of sea lions lay covered in dirt at the bottom of a dry, sandy pit.

All joking aside, the animals were fine. You just had to wait for it.

Mr. Seal sits up dapper and studly in the Santander sunshine.

Mr. Stud sits pretty in the Santander sunshine.

In the end, I appreciated this opportunity to see dozing mammals in a zoo by the sea. If there had been water in the pit, I couldn’t have laughed to see Mr. Stud walking on 4 fins in a revolting-yet-fascinating limp-hop only to head-butt another seal and plop down again on his side, reaching one fin high into the sky as if to air out his swampy armpits.

If not for exhibitions like these, what are zoos for?!


Traveling Alone

I’ve traveled alone before, but the maximum time period is usually 3 days — that is, unless you count the thing where I moved to Spain for 9 months. That aside, I was too nervous to do the Camino de Santiago alone. As a compromise, I decided to CouchSurf my way through the north of Spain instead. I sent dozens of couch requests, took a deep breath, ignored my conscience, and bought a Ryanair flight from Sevilla to Santander.

The Itinerary

My itinerary, with Wednesday and Tuesday for flying to and from Sevilla, is as follows:

  1. Thursday: Santander
  2. Friday: Ribadesella
  3. Saturday: Oviedo
  4. Sunday: Cangas de Onís and Covadonga
  5. Monday: Bilbao

It’s currently 1:30am on Sunday morning, and my bus leaves for Cangas de Onís at 8:30am. But before I forget, and because I broke my camera in Santander, I wanted to write down some of my experiences.

Sevilla vs. Santander

Leaving Sevilla, despite the persistent weather over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or perhaps because of it, I knew I would miss it. Luckily, leaving Spain still feels theoretical and so far into the future that it hasn’t affected me emotionally. I suppose I probably won’t realize I’m gone until I land in Chicago — just four days away!–, and there I’ll have amiable distraction in the form of my high school best friend.

Sweat dripping down my forehead and my back, I boarded the bus. With a makeshift fan made of my boarding pass and itinerary notes, I fanned myself onto the airplane. A mere 2 hours later, I landed in Santander, where everything was different. Where Sevilla is… toasted orange, Santander is… moist blue.

First, I rolled down my sleeves. I put on my fleece and wrapped my scarf around my neck. I smelled something strange: freshness. I saw deciduous trees. I saw rust.

First Impressions of Santander

The first item on my itinerary was to find the apartment building where I’d be spending the night. One of the most difficult things about traveling in Spain is finding the name of the street you are on. The other most difficult things are finding a bathroom when you need one (bonus if it has toilet paper and/or soap) and finding a good place to eat something vegetarian.

As I disembarked from the airport bus into the city center, I asked the bus driver to point me in the direction of the first street on my directions. He asked me where I was going and gave me landmark directions for the entire route. Nice!

I followed the bus driver’s directions and made my way to a plaza. I didn’t see a name, and so I asked someone nearby for confirmation. After the confirmation, the agreeable stranger asked me where my final destination was andwalked me to the door, even though he lived a couple streets away. I protested that he needn’t exert himself in this fashion and that I could find my way, but he insisted, and so we chatted amiably on the way. When he left me at the door, he invited me for coffee sometime in the next few days. I was touched, but had to decline.

My hosts were equally gracious. I walked in the door and they offered water and an orange. They showed me my room: an actual bedroom with a double bed and a desk. A shelf was decorated with postcards from former CouchSurfers, photos, and drawings from former CouchSurfers’ kids. They even had the wifi title and password written out already and placed neatly on the desk.

We stayed up until 2:30 in the morning chatting in the kitchen (in Spanish!) about everything from regional dialects to CouchSurfing horror stories to the best ice cream in Santander. With their help, I was so oriented to the city before I left the following morning to explore it that I didn’t use the map once.

Overall, my first impression of Santander — having arrived in the dark and not seen any monuments or vistas yet — was favorable. The people were warm and friendly, and I was excited to see the sea and mountains. When I laid down in the giant bed, sleep fell like a dropped cannonball.

Second Impressions of Santander

  • The good: the Eastern Market. It was sprawling and noisy with people shuffling and scuffling in front of stalls in order to get a hand on the goods, shop-keepers hawking their wares and prices and yelling out to passers-by, and everyone haggling.
  • The bad: I haggled enough that I bought nothing at full price, and I admit that I lied; “I thought you told me it was only 5€!” But when I paused later on to look at my goods, one item had already broken and other seemed not to fit. They had removed the packaging with the brand name — and I stupidly realized that they would probably reuse it on other jewelry, and that I bought something fake. Luckily, I paid a price that was worth what I bought anyway, and the broken item will be easy enough to fix.
  • The good: the views are beautiful! There are rows upon rows of mountains across from the river across from the marina and the port and the long, winding beaches. I climbed to the top of the hill on the peninsula and had picnic overlooking Camello Beach, which was littered gigantic fallen cliff bits. If I turned around, I could see another beach and the mountains across the river. If I turned again, I could see a landscape of the colorful city houses in blue and red and orange and green. Turning a last time, I could see the open-air zoo, which had penguins, sea lions, seals, and ducks.
  • The bad: I broke my camera. Because I decided not to bring anything buy my travel purse, I had to hang the camera around my wrist. Horrible idea; it fell twice. The first time, it chipped: an aesthetic wound, but it funcitoned without a hitch. The second time was a short fall, the height of a park bench, but a ribbon of wire disconnected on the inside and I have to send the camera in for repairs. It’s a good thing I got that warranty!
  • The good: Regma ice cream is delicious. Like Rayas, it has a hazelnut flavor — truly the best flavor ever. Unlike Rayas, Regma is real ice cream and not gelato. I got a large scoop on a tasty cookie-waffle cone and ate it walking barefoot on the beach. Perfect.
  • The bad: I got sunburnt 😦
  • The good: there are escalators in the street that lead up to an elevator in the street that takes you up to a look-out point to see over the entire city, the river, and the mountains.
  • The bad: the simplest sandwich costs 4-6€. WHAT?! The north is expensive!
  • The good: I got 4 pintxos for 5€, and they were amazing. One pintxo was stacked with fried eggplant, baked brie, grilled mushroom, and roasted red pepper. Another pintxo was a flatbread with baked goat cheese and carmelized onions. Yet another was spanish tortilla au gratin with a squash sauce. It was an excellent meal, and I ever had some left over for a snack.
  • The bad: I didn’t have more time in Santander; I could live there!

I was sad to leave Santander, but looking forward to Ribadesella enough that I toughed it out and boarded the train the next morning.

But that’s a very long story; and it will have to wait. Here’s a taste:

  • Meeting Willi
  • “Megan’s House”
  • Dinosaur footprints
  • The hermitage on the hilltop
  • The calm bay
  • The winding river
  • The rows of mountains
  • The steep, rocky cliffs and crashing waves
  • Whale watching and pirate hunting

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, I’ve still got Oviedo left. Here’s a taste of Oviedo:

  • Woody Allen
  • Grilled vegetables
  • The jewels of Oviedo: preromanesque churches
  • Cider and fava bean stew
  • The cathedral
  • Wounds of the civil war

Hopefully I’ll have some good memories from the pueblos in the mountains after tomorrow. For now, good night!