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!

How My Phone Got Stolen In Lisbon, Portugal

Derek and I had only been in Lisbon, Portugal for a few hours at that point. We were there to meet Bill for Semana Santa. While we waited to be able to check in to the hostel, we went on a free tour of the city and then headed back to where the tour guide said the “real” food was.

We passed through the “real food” district, with codfish prepared in 5 different ways on every single menu, and the street ahead was plain and stark and unpopulated. We were both disappointed, tired, hungry, and grumpy. Derek wanted to turn around and go back, but I urged just one street more.

I stopped to take some pictures of a tile-shop with adorable hand-painted tiles of different animals, from whales to goats to kitties, as well as tiles with pretty patterns and landscapes.

A few meters uphill was a sign shaped like a giant cupcake frosted in layers of yellow and pink, with a dainty cherry on top.

“Oh, a cupcake shop!” I squealed. “And it says it’s vegetarian!” I felt like I was in Brooklyn. I begged to go.

Derek noted that the shop looked closed, but I insisted that we at least take a look. To our surprise, the door was open, and it was not a bakery at all. The menu of the day listed seitan with gravy and mushrooms on rice, an adaptation of a typical Portuguese dish, plus soup and salad for only €7,50. On the counter were trays full of empanadas. On a shelf in the back were tall, bright, primary-colored teapots. A man was sitting with his back toward the door reading a Kindle. I could not have imagined a more ideal place: the adorability of cupcakes with the real-food-fillingness of real food.

“I want to eat here,” I said.

Derek noted that it looked like the restaurant was closing. A tall, thin boy around our age gently approached us from the back of the restaurant.

“Do you still have your menu for today?” I asked.

“Sorry, no,” he said, jerking his chin back and forth. His eyes were sorrowful. I thought he looked depressed. “The menu is over.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. I looked at the man calmly reading his Kindle. “Are you still serving tea?”

“Yes, yes; please, sit,” he said. “One moment, please…” He turned and scurried back into the kitchens.

Derek and I looked over the laminated, tri-folded menu on the table. “The coffee is expensive here,” Derek joked. It was €0,15 more expensive than at that metro station that morning; it was only €0,65.

“I love Portugal! The food is so cheap!” I said. “Oh, the tea is the same price as it is in Spain.”

The tall, thin boy emerged from the kitchen and scurried back to our table. “We can do it,” he said. “We can do the menu.” Quick on his heels was an excited woman with her hair tied back in a simple ponytail. She was dressed in black from head to toe.

“We can do the menu,” she said, “but there is no more soup.”

“Oh, great!” I said. I sent Derek a significant look that said, Do-you-want-to-eat-here?-Yes?-No?-Well-whatever,-because-I-want-to,-and-I’m-going-to. “We’ll do it.”

With expert confidence, she continued to sell us a salad and two empanadas, a milkshake for Derek, and a tea for me. “They’re staying open for us,” I said, justifying how expensive this meal was going to be after all.

The empanadas came out first. The crust was flaky and light, but not dry. I was pleasantly surprised. Then came the salad, with no iceberg lettuce in sight. Tasty greens ranging in flavor from bitter to nutty to spicy were covered in fresh vegetables and sunflower shoots. It was so big, I hoped we’d have room for the entreé.

When my tea came, I was given a pretty yellow teacup that matched a pretty yellow teapot — a full-size teapot, not a single-serving pot with a Lipton bag. I looked inside. It was loose-leaf in a metal tea-ball, and it smelled heavenly. “I loooooove Portugal!” I repeated. “And it’s only €1,40!”

I took my iPhone out of my inner pocket, where I’d had my hand on it all day, and took several photos at different angles. Our entreé came out (“It looks so good!”), so I took some pictures of that, too. Imagining cell-phone radiation mutating my insides, I laid my phone beside my plate to take my first bite. The rice had cilantro in it, and it was so good. The gravy was good, too. And the portions were generous. “I want to come back here tomorrow,” I said.

Derek and I were discussing something — public transportation, maybe, or NIMBYism and low-cost housing — when two women entered the restaurant and interrupted our conversation. They were of the same height, with the same long, dark hair in a single long, dark braid, and billowing white dresses. One was old and fat, and one was young and thin and pretty. The pretty one approached me quickly and started shaking yellowed papers in my face.

“No,” I said. “No!” It was strange; the papers looked like nonsense. Why would they be selling papers? She pressed in on me, touching my arm, and nearly hitting me in the face with the papers. I pushed her arms up, away from my food; I blocked my face. “No, no, no!” I repeated. I was becoming upset. I stared down into my lap, shaking my head, wishing they would go away. Why were they doing this inside the restaurant?

The tall, thin boy stood at the back of the restaurant, watching with his bewildered, sad eyes. He looked like he wanted to say something; he looked like he wished he would say something; but he stood poised, alert, and un-doing. His eyes said, “I’m sorry,” as his body said, “Gee, I hope they leave soon. This is uncomfortable.” The man with the Kindle did not look up.

Derek was starting to yell. For once, I was glad. Usually I chastise him for being so stern with the Roma women when they push rosemary at us in the street. “Just ignore them and keep on walking,” I would say. “You don’t have to yell at them.”

Finally, they seemed to change their minds. The young one moved toward the man with the Kindle, but the old one headed straight for the door. The young one hurried out.

Derek and I looked at each other. “Ugh,” I said. Derek looked annoyed. “What were we talking about…? Oh yeah…” and he began to revive our conversation.

“Wait. I just… I just need a minute.” I said. I was still fuming, wondering what I could have done differently to make them leave faster. I was still confused that they had come into a restaurant. I was angry with the tall, thin boy for not shooing them away. I wished the manager lady hadn’t stepped out to run to the bank. She would have shooed them away.

I pulled myself together, took a deep breath, and decided to enjoy the rest of my meal (even if those dirty pamphlets might have touched my gravy). “Okay, I’m ready. Sorry; what were you saying?”

Derek opened his mouth to repeat himself, but bolted up in alarm. “Megan; where’s your phone?” His voice was tight. His eyes were already at the door.

“Oh no!” I said. Derek hurried to the door. “They took it!” I said. He looked left and right. The street was empty and silent in both directions. Lunch time was over. There wasn’t even anyone to ask which way they had gone.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and I saw him jog out of sight.

I stood up and paced back and forth. I sat down. I stood up and went to the door. I wanted to run and help, but I didn’t want to appear to be dining and dashing. The tall, thin boy had disappeared into the kitchen. The man with the Kindle didn’t look up.

The tall, thin boy came back into the room. I was angry. I felt he saw them take my phone, and I didn’t understand why he hadn’t said anything. Why was he so quiet? Why was he so sad? “They took my phone!” I said. The man with the Kindle looked up.

“I’m sorry,” said the tall, thin boy. His eyes looked scared. I’m sure he was thinking, “This is bad.” Maybe he was wondering if the noisy American was going to yell at him. “What kind of phone was it?” he asked.

I felt awkward. An iPhone is a very expensive phone in Europe, and it makes me feel guilty somehow. I was very aware that I was a tourist in a country in crisis. “An… iPhone.” I said.

The man with the Kindle said, “What? What happened?”

I explained how the two women had come in, hassled my table, and left; how we didn’t realize they had taken anything until a couple minutes later. “I didn’t even notice they came in,” said the man with the Kindle. “Did they take anything else?”

No; strangely, my wallet was untouched inside my open purse, which was also not taken, even though it was hanging on the back of my chair. It probably would have been easier to take than the phone. I felt like an idiot. Why hadn’t I put my phone in my purse and closed it up? I made a note to myself to always eat with my purse in my lap for the rest of all time.

Derek came back. “Nothing,” he said, disappointed and angry. “They must have turned somewhere.”

I experienced a complexity of emotion; something about “unfair,” “karma,” “Roma!” and “Stupid!” I felt loss, disappointment, bewilderment, anger, guilt, shame, and hope.

I thought to myself, “Well, what do I do now?”

So I decided to finish my meal, again, dirty pamphlet and all. “It’s mostly the pictures that I regret,” I said. “I can always buy a new phone, but I wish I had those pictures.” I was so angry with the two Roma women. How could they do that? How could they just steal… from me? Didn’t I seem nice? I just gave money to a man playing an accordion by the church that morning. I was so happy. I was having a good time. What were they going to do with it anyway? Its face was cracked.

“Well, I’m going to be a lot meaner to the Roma women from now on,” I said.

“Good!” said Derek.

“And I won’t yell at you for yelling at them anymore,” I said.

“Good,” he said again.

I struggled with these thoughts. I thought about all the Roma who froze to death in the street this past winter after being deported to Romania with no where to go once they got there. I thought about the racism in Spain, how they are discriminated against, how they don’t have papers and can’t get legal work. How they risk deportation when they come in contact with the authorities; how it’s unfair to expect them to follow law. They’re not citizens, and they’re not treated with any hope of becoming citizens. What should I expect?

I thought about my privilege, traveling the world well-protected, welcomed, cared for. I have a job in a fantastic city just because I speak English as a native language. I have had an iPhone 4 to begin with, plus a Spanish phone. And a laptop, and health insurance; friends who fly over the ocean just to visit. Every night I sleep in a warm bed. Every day I eat whatever I want to, whenever I want to, and how much I want to. Complete strangers welcome me into their homes for days or weeks at a time, just to help me travel.

As much as being the victim was frustrating and annoying, I knew that overall, I have the way better end of the stick.

But I still wanted my phone back.

Now, having only been in the city for a few hours, and not yet checked in to our hostel, Lisbon seemed dirty and dangerous. I certainly didn’t feel like going out in the evening or drinking, just to have something else stolen. I was more annoyed by the pushy service industry, who walk with you down the street with their menus trying to entice you to their restaurant; if not now, then later. I was less amused by the smiling gentleman who would walk up and down the streets beckoning toward families with stacks of sunglasses and bracelets, but lowering their voices to students to murmur, “Cocaine? Hash? I’ve got good hash!”

As we left the restaurant, I peered suspiciously in every nook, cranny, and side street, wondering where the two women disappeared. When the manager had come back to the restaurant, she gave us the address of the Foreigner’s Police Station. It was across the street from our hostel, just a block away from the street where we had eaten lunch, and I had gotten robbed.

When we arrived, there was a girl with long, dreadlocked hair complaining about being stolen from. She was American. Another pair of girls, younger, probably study-abroad students, were talking to another agent. They were American, too. After the agent had filed my police report, we passed another American couple coming in report a theft.

I was too overwhelmed to make any comment other than, “Is Lisbon just really dense with American tourists, or are we that easy to profile and take advantage of?”

The two American girls finished up at the same time as Derek and I. They caught us in the lobby. “Hey,” said one, breathless. “Are you American, too?” When I affirmed, they said, “I thought so. I heard you say, ‘Well, in the United States…‘” I was offended by her tone. I had been clarifying why I had asked if there would be any fees if I wanted to press charges.

They were still standing there, excited, expectant. I asked, “So, what happened to you?”

“We were on the bus,” said one. “We were talking and I didn’t even feel it, but someone just took my wallet right out of my purse! My purse was on me the whole time! So be really careful to keep an eye on your purse!”

I thought to myself: everyone knows that. Everyone knows that you keep a hand on your purse when you’re in a crowd; everyone knows that you turn the flap toward you, so that it’s harder to access.

They didn’t ask me, but I said, “I was eating in a restaurant when two women came in and took my phone off the table. They waved paper in my face so I couldn’t see. We were sitting near the window of the restaurant, and we were closest to the door. Always sit in the back of the restaurant!”

They looked at me like I was crazy. I realize they were probably thinking the same thing about me as I had just thought about them: “You stupid idiot. Everyone knows…”

I reflected for a moment on how I felt like a victim, but how the experience seemed to give me very little empathy for other victims. “I wish it was just my wallet,” I thought to myself. “It’s easy enough to cancel a credit card or get a new ID.”

This story doesn’t really have a happy ending except that when I wake up, groping for my iPhone to check my email is not the very first thing I do. I’m even considering not replacing my iPhone with another smartphone. I managed to enjoy aspects of Lisbon despite the inaugural experience: the view from Eduardo VII Parque was exceptional, for example.

But mostly, I wrote all of this just to tell you that I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures to share, and that I won’t have any new ones for a very long time. I considered drawing you some crude impressions on MS Paint, but I don’t have MS Paint, so I can’t.

I’m considering taking up ink and watercolors and going around the city making my own pictures… and if that works out, I’ll try to scan them for your pleasure. Until then, keep your purses close and don’t sit by the window.

My Past Two Days

My 35 hours of travel were better than I expected. I prepared for them well, I think, and it wasn’t so bad with the overnight layover because it felt like 6pm-2am to me. The second day was a bit harder because it was a series of 2-hour journeys and I was too nervous to comfortably sleep on any of them. My favorite 2-hour stop was in Madrid, where Customer Service told me they left my luggage in London, but they could mail it directly to my piso. Sweet! I walked lightly around el Parque del Buen Retiro before grabbing a bite to eat in Atocha Station.

The hardest 2-hour leg was the last, on the train between Madrid and Sevilla. I kept on falling asleep without meaning to; my thoughts would turn into waking-REM and I’d jolt back to reality whenever my head collapsed. I’d giggle nervously at the person sitting next to me, and with traditional Spanish straight-face, she would say nothing and slowly turn her head to look out the window. Every. Single. Time. The only time she laughed was when the management restarted Green Lantern for the 4th time because they couldn’t figure out how to do Spanish dubbing instead of subtitles. A harried RENFE employee with wild eyes hurried past after the 3rd failure, her blue silk neck-scarf billowing behind her quite prettily. I like to think she was the one who fixed it because the movie worked after that. GIRL POWER!

Segue, I saw a rad old lady on the train wearing busy black-and-white snake-print pants and a mid-calf-length furry leopard print coat. She also had on a leopard print silk scarf. Somehow she looked completely awesome and way more stylish than I could ever be, and not at all like a goofy pimp. I think it was the way she carried herself. She smiled at me. I fell in love with her.

Everyone is so beautiful and well-kept in Spain. I remembered it and commented on it in the US, but it still surprised me when I saw it again. I felt over-dressed, even, in no make-up but at least not wearing sweat-pants when I got on the plane in Chicago. I felt perfectly fine in London. But when I landed in Madrid, I felt like a dirty, yucky slob! Everyone looks like Penelope Cruz. Everyone is prettier than Penelope Cruz. Everyone was wearing full make-up, their long, thick, Hollywood hair unperturbed by 8 hours of travel; they wore pretty, tailored heather-gray peacoats with matching tall brown boots, clothing artfully layered; they pushed the cutest swiveling carry-on bags and hung smoldering-hot male accessories from their arms to deal with the overhead compartments. I was very aware that I had not showered for 30 hours. I tried to figure out if that smell was coming from the gross leather headrests or my armpits. I pinned my elbows to my sides and casually leaned away from my fellow passengers. I hoped I wouldn’t fart when I finally fell asleep on the tiny plane.

When I got home (oh lovely home!), I was so happy. I missed my piso. And Sevilla is so beautiful and warm, and the skies are so blue, and it’s familiar and alive and it even smells right. At first I thought no one was home, which made me sad since I planned to go to sleep right away but wanted to be able to say hello. I peeked in Andrés’ room, but something was wrong. His room was clean. Too clean. I was naughty and peeked in his armoire to see if he had clothes put away. It was empty. Hm.

At 5:30pm, as I was getting ready for bed, Omar woke up to get ready for work. I talked to him for a bit and it turns out Andrés moved out on Friday. He went to Madrid to live with his sister and to look for work there, since nothing was turning up in Sevilla. Now we are on the hunt for a brand new housemate, just as Derek is poised to arrive. I think I will like basically anyone who is clean, only yells during soccer matches, and doesn’t steal my stuff.

Jet lag is actually a blessing. Waking up at 4:30am means I’m totally going to be on time for work. I’m glad I only have to work two days this week; Friday will be 70 degrees warm and sunny, and I can’t wait to say hello to my pretty city.

Segovia: Inside the Castle

Inside the castle, each room felt more impressive than the last. It was a perfect tour. I would get to a room, think, “this must be the peak,” and then say the exact same thing about the next room.

Our tour began at the very bottom of the castle, working our way up to the very top, on the azotea (terrace rooftop) of the tallest tower of the alcázar (palace), the Torre de Juan II.

The cellar was empty and rough. A deep, dark pit was blocked off by a wrought iron grate, but there were sparkling coins glittering inside. I turned away from the pit to see Bill standing with his face in the corner.

Bill bows his head in the corner of the cellar

Bill! Go to your dungeon!

Upstairs, the first two rooms of the tour were lined with suits of armor. Nearly all of them were shorter than I am, and some of them were very tiny — making them 1/3 the size of my future students. Despite their dainty appearance, I’m very nearly positive that each and every one would outlast me in a fistfight.

I am about to shake hands with my little friend, a tiny suit of armor.

Why hello there, Mr. Tiny Suit!

A knight with a  lance rides atop an armored horse.

None shall pass!

The throne room had a moorish-inspired ceiling with the mirrors and intricate patterns, but it was more angular than the throne room in the Real Alcázar in Sevilla. It had two large portraits, one each of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The royal bed was surprisingly small, perhaps 1/3 the size of a current king size bed. Reasons not to travel back in time: people will chase you with pitchforks thinking you’re a giant. Everything was covered in smooth red velvet. I wonder if kings and queens kicked the covers off their beds on hot summer nights to find them tangled and crumpled on the floor in the morning. Now their blankets are crushed velvet.

Midway up the palace was a terrace with pretty views all around.

View from the terrace over some turrets that have been carved up by tourists.

This post brought to you by Friday, Calvin Klein, Amy, and the letter A.

Right in the middle of the terrace was a well. There was still water in the bottom, but no pulley to bring it up anymore. Bill took a video of himself dropping a coin inside, and you can see it splash at the bottom.

Bill stands at a well beneath the Torre.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Bucket

From here, we passed through more rooms filled with armor, flags, and cannons until we reached the chapel. Throughout, the artwork was very gruesome, reminding me of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. And Quentin Tarantino.

A stained glass image of a horse's hoof pressing a king's head into the pavement.

That's gotta hurt.

Gory religious imagery


Finally we got to the bottom of the Torre de Juan II, where we warned not to even try if we weren’t in good shape.


They forgot to mention that each step was a foot high.

The staircase was steep, cramped, and dimly lit — but also worth it. At the top, there seemed to be no such thing as a best place to look out at the scenery. Every spot was gorgeous, especially since it was the final golden hour before sunset.

We see the backs of the turrets on the top of the Torre.

It never occurred to me before that the turrets wouldn't be full circles.

Of course my photography can’t even begin to capture the depth and color and vastness of the scene, but I will try to show you:

A view overlooking changing trees, mountains, and sunlit Segovia in the distance.


Here is the other side:

A couple looks out over the hazy sunset between two of the turrets on the top of the Torre.


And here’s the side overlooking the cathedral:

A view of the cathedral from the top of the Torre.


Before the sunset could fully kick in, we headed back to the bus stop to catch the train back to Madrid. One last view of the castle:

A view of the castle in Segovia from a distance.

Nice place.

And we arrived at the station:

The train station in segovia in the beginning of sunset.

There are worse places to have to wait for a train.

We got there sooner than expected, so Bill pulled out his harmonica.

Bill plays the harmonica in the sunset at the train station.

There are worse things to hear when waiting for a train.

I took pictures of the sunset, which was really this bright and deep.

Deep blues, purples, and bright pinks make up this sunset over Segovia.

There are worse sunsets when waiting for a train.

And, of course, before you leave, here are some Segovian cats:

A cat cleans himself in his usual place, you know, at the base of a gigantic cathedral.

Just another day for Señor Fuzzles

A tightly packed row of painted wooden cats.

Meow meow meow!

Madrid: With Bill

I bolted upright. How long has Bill been waiting for me? I panicked, leapt out of bed, jiggled on my jeans, and ran downstairs. Something was wrong. The lobby didn’t look like it did yesterday at 8:30am, with the television playing a strange mix of spanish ballads, 10-year-old rock songs, and today’s Top 40. And why was the sun so dark?

I went back to bed and slept for another 4 hours.

The next time, I opened my eyes amidst a haze of shuffling bodies. Downstairs, Bill had already eaten breakfast. He couldn’t check in for a few hours, so we went to el Parque del Buen Retiro.

First, we found the Crystal Palace.

The front face of the Crystal Palace in Madrid, with columns reaching up to a bright blue sky.

An austere building...

Bill slides down a giant slide inside the Crystal Palace.

... with a giant slide inside!

Perhaps the giant slide was an integral part of the overall art exhibition including the voices of a man and a woman singing lines from different political mantras and videos of hundreds of people interpreting major historical events by standing in lines and grids and stomping their feet — or maybe it was just a way to get down from a vista.

Across from the Crystal Palace is a man-made pond filled with ducks and geese and swans and other avian creatures. The next day, we would come back to this spot with an old baguette. See the difference?

A view of an urn-shaped sculpture with a lake and trees in the background.

Before the baguette, the pond is serene.

A picture of an urn-shaped sculpture with a lake and trees in the background, covered in birds.

After the baguette, the pond teems with life. Even the sky is bluer!

Notice the bird in the lower-right corner, above what may be my finger over the lens.

We continued to explore more of the park, stopping sometimes to rest and sometimes to play. We weren’t allowed to leave until I saw a cat.

The lake of Buen Retiro, lined with colorful trees and covered in rowboats.

We watch the men huff and puff to push the ladies all around the lake.

A choppy image of me enjoying the swingset.

A playground isn't a playground if no one is playing.

Finally, I saw a cat. We ate in a delicious cafetería called Neila, which has the best tortilla that I have ever had, and then returned to the hostel where it was time for Bill to check in.

That evening, we explored the terrazas, which are the outdoor seating areas of the cafés in the plazas. As soon as we sat down, a man came by to play some spanish guitar for tips. At the next terraza, entire bands came by to play jazz, complete with bass, accordions, clarinets, and saxophones.

We watch a man play spanish guitar on the other side of the terraza.

There are terrazas like this in every plaza in the area.

After the terrazas, we went for one last stop to watch the end of the Valencia vs. Barcelona game in an Irish pub.

Painted tiles depict Oscar Wilde.

This is why we chose this bar.

It was a beautiful and full day. I had a lovely time, and felt that Madrid was definitely my favorite place in the whole world.

The next day we would adventure to the lovely Segovia.