There are always different ways a story can be told. Our story of Sevilla can be told in the travel brochure way: SEVILLA IS AWESOME. YOU SHOULD GO! It can also be told as a cautionary tale, in the sense of BEWARE THE WING-IT METHOD. THE WING-IT METHOD IS NOT FOR AMATEURS, IT IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS, IT IS NOT FOR INTERMEDIATE USE EITHER. Even in a world-class city like Sevilla. A two-week trip can absorb a couple of bad days. A shorter trip might lay in tatters.
We woke up well rested on our first morning in Sevilla. It started raining hard in the middle of the night, which is a drowsy kind of a sound when you’re in a tent and you have checked that nothing is leaking. The only thing to do outside is to get soaked, so it feels like a solid bet to try to wait out the weather. We slept in. The last few days had been full of constant movement, and it was nice to have some unstructured time. We’d make it a rest day and do nothing more than catch up on chores and errands. So we thought. We were about to pay the price for relaxing our vigilance on the infrastructure.
The first problem was that we had pushed at least a day too long on laundry. Our trips over the last two days, to Tangier and Gibraltar, had filled our schedule to the brink. We had no clean socks or underwear and our towels needed a wash, too. Looking back, we should have asked about laundry facilities when we arrived in La Línea two nights earlier. The next two problems were more pressing. We were out of food and we still had no fuel canister for cooking. There I was, wearing nothing but my rain pants, flip flops, and jacket with a somewhat transparent warm-weather top underneath, not exactly ready for prime time. I got a fresh mosquito bite on my bare ankle while we waited for our two loads.
It’s so easy to see things in retrospect. We left two hours later than we should have. We had overscheduled ourselves all week. We counted on the easy availability of what are really fringe hobbyist cooking supplies, assuming that Spanish campings would have hot plates like Icelandic campings sometimes do, not planning any backups. Add in heavy rain, low blood sugar, and one person with a missing toenail, and there is not much further that the discipline of mood maintenance can stretch. Rainy days are perfect for visiting museums, but they can be miserable when outdoors all day.
We couldn’t find the bus stop. We stopped in three nearby stores looking for propane, but didn’t find any in the appropriate format. We found the bus stop and waited with a local teenage girl, who eventually called her mom and had a frantic conversation. The (hourly) bus finally arrived, 27 minutes late. This would prove to be the sole late transportation connection of our entire trip. At this point we were both irritable, hungry, and frustrated. It was nearly evening and all we’d had all day was a protein bar apiece.
The Spanish national habit of closing restaurants between 4 and 7 or 8 was known to us, but we hadn’t experienced it yet. Due to the late bus, we got downtown minutes into this dead period. We went to no fewer than five restaurants that proved to be closed. We wandered the streets in futility and stumbled across a miniature herbolario, where I picked up supplies to last until the end of the trip. A few doors down, we found a larger grocery store and finished the rest of our list. We had food but still no way to heat it up. My husband had a headache. I checked my purse and discovered that at some point, I had removed the vial of headache tablets I have kept there for the last five years. Then I realized my journal had gotten wet through the backpack.
The rain had gotten into my boot as well. My damp sock had soaked the exposed skin on my toe and the nearby thin shell of new nail. It started to get increasingly uncomfortable, then unbearable, then Really Not Kidding unbearable. I was limping. As a marathon runner, I’ve done plenty of limping; if I really want or need to get somewhere on foot, it’s not so much a mobility factor as a grit factor. It was starting to feel like nothing was going right. We walked a mile to what Google described as an “outdoor store” that was really only a soccer store.
We quarreled in the street.
It happens. We’ve never been on a trip when we haven’t overheard at least one marital squabble. On our honeymoon, it was a man roaring at a woman: “WHAT KIND OF A PERSON, LEAVES A BAG?!?” They shouted at each other for two days. You know they had to be married because no roommates, friends, or adult siblings would ever be so nasty to each other, especially not over that kind of time period. We’ve been woken up at 7 AM by a married couple fighting in a nearby tent (Hungarian?) and by a young man shouting at his girlfriend on the sidewalk (Icelandic). The first live German phrase I ever heard was at Heathrow, when a woman left her presumed date at the gate during check-in, calling in a Parthian shot: “Du bist scheisse!” If she had a ticket, she never boarded that flight... Either people get this frustrated at each other as a matter of course, or the additional stresses of travel wear down their resolve and they lack the willpower to be courteous and considerate. We plan around theft, delays, missed flights, sunburn, insect bites, indigestion, rain, changing our minds about what to wear, lost wallets, boredom, and every other eventuality. Rarely do we plan what we’ll do when we’re just on our last nerves, not having a good time, and then one more thing goes wrong. Or five. There is no travel insurance for annoyance. Yet there’s no point spending the money, packing, or suffering through jet lag if we can’t figure out how to salvage a trip after a cruddy day.
We pulled ourselves together and went to the bus stop back to our camping. We got out at the same shopping center where we had been two hours earlier. I sat on a bench outside while my husband went into the Target-style store and looked at options for a stove. He’s an engineer and might have been able to jerry-rig something that would carry us three nights. It turned out that out of all the propane and butane stove components on the shelves, none were compatible with any others! He came out half an hour later with an expensive, low-quality car camping stove that wound up breaking. This, coupled with the large new propane canisters we had to throw away in Madrid, made using a propane backpacking stove prohibitively expensive and high maintenance. We learned that lesson the hard way. Before we do another trip of this nature, there will be some experimentation.
While I was sitting on the bench, I put my head in my hands. An older Spanish gentleman came over to me and asked, in Spanish, “Has something happened?” He looked so kind. His concern touched me and made me want to cry, but I didn’t want to alarm him and I would have needed an hour to cobble together a couple of sentences for him. I said I was okay. He searched my eyes and walked backward a few steps before leaving. How extraordinary. At home, I’m pretty sure I would have had to be unconscious or copiously bleeding before a stranger would come over to check on me.
We went back to camp. It was evening and time to eat. We had resolved all the problems that beset us at the start of the day: All our clothes were clean, we had groceries and a working stove, we knew where the bus stop was, the rain had stopped, and we knew the locations of at least three restaurants we might try when they were open. I was able to blow-dry my journal a bit with the restroom hand dryer. We had nothing further to do before we left for home, nothing other than enjoying ourselves and breaking camp on the last day. The day had been successful in every way, except for two things: POOR PLANNING and MORALE.
May my tale of woe serve to prevent similar hassles for at least one other person.
I was on fire to read this book for two reasons: to validate my concept of myself as a person with a lot of grit, and to learn anything new that I could about this trait. What I learned from Angela Duckworth is that I’m basically hopping around on one foot and bragging about it. The subtitle spells it out. Grit consists of both passion and perseverance, and I’m only really strong at one of them. Knowing this may very well change my life.
Perseverance is my trait. When I decide I want something, I will go after it with the tenacity of Michael Myers from Halloween. Or the cyborg from The Terminator. Or… it looks like there aren’t many pop culture models of perseverance who are, strictly speaking, human. Anyway. Failing at something I think is important just ticks me off. I took a class in college and got an F. My response was to take a different class from the same professor and get an A, while retaking the original class the same term with a different instructor and getting an A in that, too. I failed my driving test twice, and finally passed it with the proctor who had failed me the first time. I did my first marathon with an ankle injury and dragged my leg for the last 8 miles. Clearly I’m not satisfied with that, and I plan to take at least a full hour off my time for my second race. A marathon is no big deal in my mind, even though I’m middle-aged and slow, because my intention is to run a 50-mile ultra for my 50th birthday.
It turns out that my weak area is in passion. How embarrassing. Apparently my issues with losing interest or changing focus are grit-related. This probably explains why someone like me who will bounce back from any setback and come back swinging has yet to take over the world. I am a dilettante in my projects. I have so many unfinished art and writing projects that I don’t even have a complete list. I think this is due to two factors: my reluctance to formally declare that I’m quitting or dropping something, coupled with my equal reluctance to buckle down and finish it on a deadline.
It was Duckworth’s description of herself sometimes crying in frustration or exhaustion while working on a long-term project that really sunk in for me. Working on something over months or years can be boring and annoying. The hardest part for me is realizing that I have to scrap pages, or an entire chapter, that took me days or weeks of work. I’m going to recast this in terms of going down the trail with a bloody knee after falling and hitting my face on a rock. Grit is a transferrable skill, as the manual Grit teaches. If I believe it’s worth doing, then I should do it, and I should keep going until it is done.
One of the most valuable ideas from Grit is the idea of making a Hard Thing Rule. The rule is that everyone should do something hard over a sustained period of time. That thing should be intrinsically interesting, but it does have to be challenging. I like this. For someone like me, the focus will be more on sustaining the duration of two years without swapping to something else. For others, the focus might be more on introducing greater challenge. I can attest that attacking difficult things just for the sake of doing them makes life much more interesting. What will happen when I stick to only one thing with that level of focus? Time to find out!
Grit is a really excellent book. I read it in one sitting. It focuses on Duckworth’s research about grit, as well as research from other luminaries about talent, flow, and mindset. There is a section on developing grit in yourself, and another section about creating a culture of grit for parents, teachers, coaches, and others in leadership roles. I’m in love with this book right now and hoping it enters the great conversation about character.
We planned our day in Gibraltar. The bus to Sevilla left in the afternoon, so we needed to be circumspect in how we used our time. We’d climb the Rock, come down and have lunch, and walk back. If we had time for anything else, great. It was hard to limit our schedule, because my husband is a huge history buff and knows a lot about Gibraltar from several different eras. How do you choose how to focus when an entire landmass is so saturated with fascination and relevance? Serendipity smiled on us again.
To start, though, there was a little problem. I have pictures if you like gross stuff. I got up in the night, slipped into my flip-flops, and realized that my damaged toenail had finally cracked after six months. Bad timing. By the time I got out of the shower the next morning, it was clear that it was going to be causing me problems one way or the other. My husband is an emergency medical responder, and he’s lost toenails himself. He said it was time to cut off the broken part. I wasn’t happy about this, but the loose nail was digging into my skin, and it was a lose-lose situation. When we set off for the day, I was missing a third of the nail on my big toe. Most of it was tender skin, with a little bit of thin, soft new nail. Not great conditions for the remaining six days of a walking vacation, or the start of a serious hike. This is when GRIT comes into play. I have a very low pain threshold, and my stamina is not so great, but nobody can beat me for pure perseverance. I will go until my legs collapse under me, and then I’ll quote Winston Churchill to myself until I can make myself get up again. Gibraltar happens to be a good place for Churchill fans.
We needed somewhere to ditch our backpacks for the day. We could have worn them as we climbed the Rock – we’ve both hiked steeper inclines to higher elevations over a longer stretch of time – but time was of the essence. There was also a question of how sweaty we wanted to be when we stopped for lunch. We took a cab back to the bus station, where getting lockers was a bit of a linguistic and logistical issue. From there, we were easily able to walk to the Spanish/British border.
Stamp fans, they don’t give out passport stamps at Gibraltar anymore due to “abuse.” I have trouble imagining what that might have meant. We were essentially waved through due to our American passports.
Walking into Gibraltar is funny, because the sidewalk crosses the airport runway. It’s very apparent that we’ve crossed from Spanish to British culture, with red phone boxes and English street names everywhere.
The hike up the Rock is paved all the way to the top. The first half goes up stairs and ordinary city streets. At the top is a park with an entrance fee of one euro. For some reason, the WWII tunnels were closed for the day, but we were able to tour the old Moorish Castle. We continued on our quest, steadily gaining elevation. The view and the balmy weather helped to distract me from my sore toe, which was not doing me any favors other than not turning black and falling off.
One thing that is impossible to miss on Gibraltar is the pervasive presence of warning signs about the monkeys. They are tailless Barbary macaques, introduced by the Moors at some point during the medieval period. Their population was deliberately maintained during WWII due to a legend that there would be Brits on Gibraltar as long as there were still macaques. They’re commonly referred to as “apes” because they don’t have tails. The signs show ferocious fanged monkey faces and warn against bites that can require hospitalization. There is a £4000 fine for feeding them. “They can touch you but you can’t touch them.” When we saw our first monkeys, we were thrilled, excited, but wary. We wanted to look at them and take pictures; we didn’t want to be permanently maimed.
There is no facial expression more serious than that of a macaque grooming another macaque. I doubt I look that intense even when I’m working.
As soon as we saw the first pair, they were everywhere, leaping in the shrubbery, walking in the road, climbing around. We continued up the road, where a couple dozen people were watching the monkeys at their feeding station. Then we saw a man helping tourists hold a juvenile macaque and pose for photos. It was clearly a highly habituated animal. It looked like it was bonded to the man (a cab driver/tour guide) and that it was literally working for peanuts. My husband stepped up to ask if he could pay for me to hold the monkey, but the guide ignored anyone who was not a part of his tour group. Made sense. The group ascended a staircase to look at the view, and the little monkey ran after them, scrambled up the stair rail, and jumped on the man’s shoulder.
I’m pretty good with animals. This involves one part observation, two parts sensitivity, and three parts protocol. Every creature down to a single-celled amoeba reacts to stimuli either through Attack, Approach, or Avoid. AVOID is a great strategy. It can be harder to differentiate between Attack and Approach. Is this creature trying to make friends, scare me out of its territory, rebuke me for infringing on the appropriate etiquette, pass by me as it happens to travel in my direction, attempt to mate, or perhaps eat me for lunch? APPROACH is the least likely outcome. In this case, I had sized up the situation and seen a habituated individual who seemed to appreciate human contact.
Monkeys spend almost all their time in physical proximity with one another. They are constantly, constantly touching each other, grooming and embracing. The young are carried everywhere. A reptile will generally find touch stressful and annoying, in the same way that my dog likes to be rubbed but not hugged, and my parrot likes her head touched but not her belly or her feet. A primate is biologically wired for snuggles – and also face-biting. We saw a couple gnashing their teeth a tenth of an inch away from each other’s snouts, and it’s very scary and dangerous. Just like us, monkeys are equally capable of rending, tearing, blood-dripping physical violence, as well as exquisite tenderness. Which was it going to be?
This is what happened. It happened in ten seconds. I looked up the stairs at the little monkey and wondered, will it come down to me if I stand by the rail? It’s looking for attention and everyone up there is distracted. I strode a few steps to the bottom of the stair rail. INSTANTLY the macaque clambered down the rail, LEAPT onto my shoulder, and put its arm around my head.
Whatever I had done with my body language and my facial expression, the macaque had taken a reading of my subconscious signals and chosen APPROACH.
I was frozen. I can’t see you. I can’t see your face. What are you doing? Is this okay for you? I was expecting a primate interaction to be scratchy and smelly. Instead, I found that the little macaque was unimaginably soft, cuddly, and clean, like a teddy bear that can actually love you back. It had the gentlest touch. If a human ever touched me as softly as a macaque, I would not just melt but weep. It was so far from the terrifying image on the warning signs that it was like portraying a koala as a carnivorous predator, except that I hear koalas have coarse fur.
I was astute enough to take off my sunglasses, but I hadn’t thought ahead far enough. I was wearing my new Moroccan earrings from the day before. Like any young lady, the little macaque thought they were pretty and wanted a closer look. She tugged and tugged at my earring. That was pretty sore. I wanted to remove it without offending her or scaring her by moving my hand. I gingerly reached up, took out my earring, and held it out on my palm so she could see it. She reached for it and almost grabbed it, but my hand slipped and it hit the ground. If she’d taken it, that would probably have been the end of my nice new earrings. Now, instead, they are Earrings of Legend, representing both our first trip to Africa and my first contact with A WILD FREAKING MONKEY THAT JUMPED ON ME.
Now, I’m “good with animals,” but my husband is a real Dr. Doolittle. It’s uncanny. Remind me some time to tell you the story of the Skunk Whisperer. He had been standing there taking pictures of my macaque encounter, and it was clear that the gregarious little creature would be open to more contact. I simply leaned over to him while he held his forearm in front of him, the way we’d seen the cab driver instruct the other tourists. She went to him right away. Then she pulled his collar aside and solemnly looked down his shirt. “You’re hairy like me.” She cuddled up and looked like she would be perfectly content to chillax with him all day. While I smiled nervously throughout my encounter, because I couldn’t see the monkey wrapped around my head and playing with my hair, my husband maintained a complete poker face. “Smiling” looks aggressive to primates, who show their teeth when they want to intimidate and warn others away. A flat, serious expression is a relaxed expression for monkeys.
“How do I get rid of you?” As much fun as it would be to sit in a monkey cuddle pile for the rest of the night, or maybe our lives, we did have an agenda. Another tourist was standing hopefully nearby, waiting for a chance to hold the macaque. My husband passed her to him, where she stayed politely for just a moment and then tactfully bounded to the feeding area and picked up a carrot. “Oh, it’s not you, I was just totally hungry.” It really seems like using language to communicate is going backward; if we were more like the macaques, we’d probably have more friends and better relationships. Excluding the face-biting part.
We took the funicular down the hill, which was ludicrously expensive, but walking down would have taken at least an hour and been tough on my toe. We stopped for lunch at a tiny veggie Indian place that had been highly rated in TripAdvisor. I told the owner, “a man left a rating that he wanted to stay in Gibraltar an extra day just so he could eat here again.” You know what is the cutest thing in the world after a baby macaque? A grown man blushing.
We had just enough time to meander down Main Street and through Casemates Square. Then we passed back through the border checkpoint and headed to the bus station. When we got there, it turned out they took only cash, and we didn’t have enough! I watched our packs while my husband sprinted a couple of blocks to a tourist agency, making it back with moments to spare. We got our bus to Sevilla.
We arrived late at night. Barcelona is alluring, Valencia is fantastically pretty, but Sevilla… Sevilla is captivating. Sevilla is one of those “if I could only live in one city the rest of my life” kinds of places. We were hooked in two minutes. We walked down the street from the bus station, gaping at all the gorgeous buildings, and had barely made it a few yards before we found ourselves eating a vast Lebanese meal at an outdoor table. We watched all the university traffic going by: people on foot, people on bikes, people with strollers, people walking dogs, people laughing and chattering and talking on their phones. Every city in the world should send an envoy to Sevilla to take notes and pictures, and then try to replicate a bit of that energy back home.
After dinner, we were back in the place of uncertainty, needing to figure out where to sleep and how to get there. There was a Starbucks up the street that was still open, even though it was nearly 10 PM. We found the camping in the next town, we found the bus schedule, but we failed to find the bus stop. It turned out we weren’t distinguishing between the city bus and the regional bus, and we were one street off. We caught a cab. The camping gate was shut, but someone opened it as soon as we pulled up, and we got registered. We found a spot, we quietly began pitching our tent, and a querulous older German lady came out of her RV and lectured us, although the official quiet hours had not begun. (If we’re really being too loud, don’t add to the noise and thus annoy others who might otherwise have slept through it). We were now sleeping in the fourth new location in four nights, or the fifth in six nights. The last couple of days had gone really well, Sevilla had captured our hearts, and we were settling in for a few days of fun and relaxation.
Or… were we?
I’ve been to four continents now. I can swagger around and say, “Yup, I’ve been to Africa.” It’s true, I really have. But we did it the entry-level way. We didn’t have to apply for visas, we didn’t have to get any extra vaccinations, we didn’t have to learn any new languages, and we didn’t go anywhere unescorted. We were able to get our feet wet with virtually no risk. We simply signed up for a cultural day trip and the tour company took care of all the complicated parts. It was enough for us to understand that committing to extended travel in North Africa on our own would be a more serious undertaking. The wing-it method had the paradoxical effect of motivating me to do much more advance prep.
We woke up early and checked out of the Algeciras Marriott. That hotel was an insane bargain. As far as we could tell, we might well have been the only guests! We took a cab to the Port to meet the shuttle that would take us to the ferry that would carry us over the 88 miles of sea to Morocco. It was rainy and still dark.
There was an important errand we needed to fit in between the arrival of the shuttle bus and the departure of the ferry. We had inquired about a place where we could lock up our massive backpacks for the day, and the only enterprise that would do it was a travel agency about a quarter mile up the road from the ferry terminal. It was a very brisk walk uphill, and a faster jog back. We barely made it. We were herded into line and given identifying stickers, much as I would do if I were supervising a kindergarten field trip.
The ferry was a fascinating experience on its own. Even the icon on the women’s restroom was dressed modestly. There were plenty of women in Western dress, and I didn’t get any funny looks, but I definitely looked foreign in this context. Especially considering that I had to get out my sewing kit and try to stitch down the strap on our little day pack before it ripped loose.
One of the many things travel will do is to teach you the precise meaning of the phrase You Get What You Pay For. We’re turning into gear snobs.
We disembarked and walked down the gangplank, on high alert that we were about to set foot on a new continent for the first time. “Ready? One, two, three:” and we both jumped down together, then jumped up and did a double high-five, to the amusement of a German man in our group.
Our guide appeared and we did a double take. Is it just me, or does he look oddly familiar?
He asked us each to say what language we spoke. We were Spanish, English, and German. He then ran the tour in each language, one after the other, telling the same mother-in-law jokes for each group. It was funny to hear each group laughing at the appropriate spot. Perhaps that’s the only type of humor that translates into every culture? It was a very rainy day, but our cheerfully chattering guide kept us smiling as he laughed at his own jokes. It turned out that he spoke NINE languages.
The van took us past the palaces (rather: compounds) of various kings and princes from across North Africa and the Middle East. Clearly these were places of great wealth, but you’d never know it from outside. Each of them was less architecturally distinctive than the last, really just concrete blocks less Brutalist than Costco-esque. All we could do was to imagine how many lush carpets and chandeliers might be inside.
Part of the tour included areas of Tangier that had been settled by various colonizing nations. There were mosques, churches, and synagogues. We passed a café that had a mixed-gender section and a men-only section across the street. We saw veiled women on the backs of mopeds. Our guide told us that a veil on a woman did not necessarily indicate religion; many women wore them out of convenience, to keep their hair from blowing around.
Can I say this? I’m a little envious and fascinated by the hijab. My hair has been the great annoyance of my life. I could easily see myself wearing a head scarf of some kind, complete with a bodycon dress just to confuse people. Strange how a piece of fabric can be so saturated with cultural resonance, perhaps more so than a national flag, such as that of, I dunno, let’s say: Fiji.
We stopped at a lighthouse that marked the division between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. There was a camel opportunity. You could go up and take your picture with the camels, touch them if you dared, and pay a tip to ride one down the parking lot and back. The one on the right seemed receptive to light stroking; she lifted her chin and closed her eyes. The one on the left jerked his head away and vocalized his dissent. I’ll do an impression for you if you ask nicely.
There was a pretty cool cave that was supposedly where Hercules rested after he completed his labors. The interior had been visibly carved out by human hands. People had been coming here to cut their millstones for who knows how many centuries. You could see these biscuit-shaped gouges of consistent size up the walls and ceiling. How big was the cave when they started? Was it even a cave, or did we turn it into one?
We passed a beach with a large mixed group of adults in street clothes, playing soccer in the sand. It looked like maybe a family party, with some older aunties joining in.
We had spent most of the tour sitting in the van, which was great because it rained pretty hard all morning. The medina was our chance to get out and really walk around. What a maze. Most of the spaces between buildings were so narrow that you could stretch out your arms and touch both sides. There were signs, but we couldn’t read them; English is not an official language in Morocco, so if you can’t read Arabic or French, good luck. Almost everything for sale was food, mostly fresh produce. Someone was selling baggies of cooked chickpeas. Tangier would be an extremely inexpensive place to pick up groceries, even in this tourist-inflected area.
The tour included lunch. When we came in, we were greeted by a live band, and by that I mean that the musicians said hello to each of us while they played. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I had brought snacks. The menu is really only for drinks; everyone gets served the same courses. First there was a fragrant soup that clearly had egg in it. Then, for the first time since 1994, I had a plate of meat plopped in front of me. I blinked at it in the same way I would if someone had presented me with a bowling ball. Huh? Me? My husband has enjoyed some large lunches on this trip, most particularly when we take trains. “Have some more bread,” offered the kindly Brits at our table.
Then something funny happened. Funny from my perspective, anyway, because I am usually guest non grata at home. The waiter leaned over me and said in concern, “You did not eat!” “Vegetarian,” my husband said, and the waiter hurried off. He brought me a double helping of the next dish, couscous with stewed vegetables. I was touched. It really seemed that he cared and wanted me to have a good meal.
We finished with the famous Moroccan mint tea, which is even better than its reputation, and there was baklava for those who partook.
After lunch, we were set loose in the souk. Part of the experience is that various merchants rush the group, doing their best to sell trinkets and leather goods. I bought a hamsa charm, and the same vendor kept following us around trying to sell us more iterations of the same one. Anyone who works in sales or marketing would probably get a kick out of this place. You haven’t seen motivation until you’ve seen someone trying to take advantage of a 20-minute window of opportunity to make some deals. My husband took me into a jewelry shop, partly to escape the barrage for a while, and helped me pick out a pair of earrings. These were the only souvenirs we bought. It’s a question of backpack space, and it’s also a question of space in our house. We’re probably the worst-case scenario tourists for this reason; if we can’t eat it, we’re probably not buying it. Earrings are portable. The significance of this particular pair will be made clear [FORESHADOWING] in tomorrow’s post.
I had a moment, a personal moment with a Moroccan man. He bumped into me and our eyes met. “Sorry,” he said. I had no idea whether he was Berber, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, or “other.” I could hear that he was not a native English speaker, that’s all. He could do what I couldn’t, which was to apologize that we had jostled each other. In that brief exchange, I felt an electric connection. I felt it. I felt that when our eyes met, he made the effort to communicate, not just a routine politeness formula, but genuine concern. Spaniards are exceptionally nice people, but my impression of Moroccans goes just that little bit further. Their hearts are open in a way that is rare in my part of the world.
We all got back on the van and went back to the ferry terminal. Success. We had gone to Morocco, we had learned a couple of words of Arabic, we had seen some sights and eaten some food, and we hadn’t even gotten deported. We helped a tiny granny lady lift a suitcase as big as she was onto the conveyor belt at security, which was hilarious because it was unattended by personnel.
Note: the guidebook claimed that everyone who goes to Morocco has to… putting this delicately… adjust… in a GI kind of way. We had no such problems. Just saying. But I accidentally drank tap water in Cancun and I was fine then, too. Robust gut flora FTW.
We got back to Tarifa, double checked the time on the shuttle, and ran up the hill to get our packs. I had my first and only success at making a Spaniard laugh. As we tried to get our burgeoning bags out the door, I said, “Elefantes,” and the clerk tittered.
We ran back down the hill, this time with our packs on. Also a moment of FORESHADOWING. We made the shuttle. What were we going to do tonight? We had no firm plans, though we figured we could check in at the Marriott again and eat at the same falafel place. As we looked at the bus schedule, we suddenly realized that we might be able to make it to La Línea that night! Nah. Could we? We could! We caught a cab at the Port and got to the bus station just in time. UNBELIEVABLE LUCK. The wing-it method had given us a scoop of serendipity.
La Línea had us in the place of uncertainty again. We leaned against a fence, trying to get wi-fi and figure out where we could eat. This was when I found out we had used all the data on our passport, and I couldn’t reload for some reason (debit card expiration, as I learned two weeks later). We needed stove fuel (thanks, Madrid train station) and we needed to figure out how to get to the camping. I was spacy from my light lunch and starting to bonk. The ten minutes after we left the bus station were ten very aggravating minutes. Then it turned out that we were mere yards from a fantastic Chinese restaurant that had vegan food! I ate an appetizer, two entrees, a bowl of rice, and lychees. We caught a cab to the camping, the famous Rock of Gibraltar visible to our right. It was the nicest camping we’d ever seen, immaculate and orderly in every way. We pitched camp and watched the sun set over the Mediterranean, taking the opportunity to dip our hands in and taste the salty sea.
Our last day in Ronda was the kind of day that feels like three. We had made some logistical decisions the night before, and now the pace was picking up.
Scene One: The luxury hotel. Our heroine tries to send out her weekly newsletter, only to find that her aging laptop has initiated an update. Frustration with “modern” technology and its attendant complications. Packing the backpacks. Doing the perimeter check. Finishing with barely ten minutes to spare. Checking out of the hotel and carrying all our worldly goods on our backs.
Scene Two: The tour van. We’ve hired a guide to take us on a package tour. When I spoke with her on the phone the previous day, we had agreed that she would drop us off at a restaurant for lunch, where we would catch the train back to Ronda. Now we are planning to go to the same station, but in the opposite direction. She accepts the presence of our enormous packs and graciously adjusts to our unannounced change of plans. (A lesson in British tact). It’s a rainy day, and we are glad to be in the van, relying on someone else to navigate.
We chatter all day about life as an expat in Spain, starting a business in a foreign country, and world affairs. Apparently the international perspective on US politics is that they are all bored already, because our election season goes on far too long. (This was April, still a full 7 months before the election). The sorry part is that my husband and I are quite sure “election season” will soon become full-time, with various hopefuls positioning themselves for future candidacy whenever it strikes their fancy. Might as well get their dirty laundry out of the way early on, so people can forget about it sooner.
Scene Three: The Roman ruins of Acinipo. Acinipo was a retirement village for legionnaires. Considering that it was an archaeological site, we were surprised at the relaxed attitude. We were allowed to walk around on the stage and sit on the seats in the amphitheater. (“There must have been cushion vendors.”) Our guide declaimed for us: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and we could hear how clearly the stone amplified her voice. What used to be a little community was now a bunch of rock piles. It looked like a concerted effort had been made to group the rubble of each building into its own pile, like batter in a muffin pan. We looked up the hill as we were leaving, and, even through the lush spring grass, it was still clear that a road had run right up the middle.
Scene Four: The Pileta Cave. We thought Acinipo was old. The paintings in the Pileta Cave had been carbon-dated back to the Cro-Magnons, over 25,000 years ago. When the lantern illuminated the first drawing and I saw the outline of a horse in red pigment, I cried. Put it on the list of Emotions That Have No Name. It wasn’t like a child’s drawing, where you ask what it’s supposed to be and then say, “Good job, honey!” It was ART. A confident human hand drew it in one stroke. It was clearly identifiable as a horse. More than that. If it had been attributed to any master painter, I would have believed it. There’s no way I could produce a horse that fine, even with a light table and tracing paper. Someone went out and found the materials for the red pigment, carried it up an extremely steep hill, brought it back into the depths of this cave, mixed the paint, and intentionally set out to represent a horse. Twenty-five thousand years ago. It’s still here for us to see. The unbroken chain of 25,000 years of humans trying their best to make beautiful things. Why? Because we can. It got worse, of course, because there were also paintings in black and yellow. These Neolithic people not only made paint, they had a palette. Nothing I have seen in my life has astounded or impressed me so much. They made art. They were like us. If we gave them iPads, they’d be able to figure them out.
Being in the cave has a lot to teach about architecture. Everything about the vaulted interior said CATHEDRAL. The dimensions of that space felt correct somehow for the human form. It’s like we’ve spent all our time here as a distinct species trying to replicate the feeling of a cave out of any materials we could find.
Oh, and by the way, they also had: CANDLES.
Scene Five: The descent. Getting up to the cave entrance requires climbing extremely steep stone steps for about ten minutes. They were cut in the 1920s. Like most of the stairs we climbed in Spain, they were uneven. Different depths, different heights, sharp edges, slick and slippery in the rain. The interior of the cave was worse in some ways. Black as pitch, pools of water right off the narrow walkways, no railings, nowhere to sit or take breaks. A strict, preservation-mandated 60-minute time limit. We hadn’t given it much thought until a fellow middle-aged American hailed us on his way up. He wanted to know about the accessibility of the cave, because his sister had just had knee surgery and they wanted to make sure she could handle it. We did our best to explain that HECK NO, this would probably be the worst place imaginable for a recovering surgery patient, other than a roller derby. “The doctor said exercise would be good for her.” As our account was winding up, the sister came into view far below. My heart broke the moment I saw her. She was at least 100 pounds overweight, a classic Obliger doing her best not to inconvenience or disappoint her travel companions, and she was clearly in pain. I bet a tooth none of her doctors ever told her that losing weight would make her life easier. It was so unfair to put her in that position, where she would feel that she was letting everyone down, yet there was no way she was going to make it for an hour-long tour through that dark, slick, narrow cave. They were going to ignore our report and go anyway. American optimism and independence at its finest. Good luck, dear heart.
In general, nothing we’ve seen in Europe is labeled in a way that would make clear to an American audience just how physically grueling access can be. (Because for the average European, it’s business as usual). There is no ADA. Okay, there are accessible restroom stalls, but that’s about it. There aren’t really any wheelchair ramps. Elevators are rare. Everything, and I mean freaking EVERYTHING, is up a million narrow stairs that are not up to any kind of code. If it’s not up a flight of stairs it’s on cobblestones. There usually aren’t safety rails and there also aren’t signs indicating DANGER or all the other stick-figures-in-peril signs to which we are accustomed. I felt oddly sad the first few days in Spain, when I noticed there were more people walking on crutches than I tend to see at home. It took over a week before I realized that what I wasn’t seeing were wheelchairs. In over five weeks of European travel, I’ve seen exactly four motorized wheelchairs, and only one of the occupants was even slightly overweight. This is probably because it would cost trillions of dollars to modernize the European cityscape to accommodate American-style mobility devices in any practical way. It couldn’t be done at all in any of the historic sites we like to tour. I haven’t been everywhere; maybe there are European cities with proper ramps and wide hallways, and I haven’t seen them yet. It’s something to consider, though.
If I’d gone in my fibromyalgia years, a single day touring any European city would have laid me out flat.
Scene Six: Cueva del Gato. This cave used to be navigable, but the immense jet of white water spewing out its mouth told a different story. All we could do was to hike through some underbrush and look at it. Thinking about being inside gave me the shivers. I hadn’t thought about it earlier in the day, but every single place we had been all day required stamina, agility, and the ability to climb steep hills.
Scene Seven: The restaurant. Our guide dropped us off at a fine foodie restaurant run by another British expat couple. In both cases, the couple had been on holiday in Spain and asked themselves, Why not stay? So they did. It’s just that simple and it happens all the time. They also shared the story that, while starting a business and getting through the bureaucratic red tape was very challenging, it was equally as difficult for native Spanish people. The food was devastating, at the level that makes most restaurants seem pointless. If I could cook like that, I would get up in the morning and stay in the kitchen all day.
As we were finishing our fine meal, another American couple came up to say hello. They had noticed my husband’s t-shirt, which favors a particular presidential candidate, and they were fellow supporters. We traded traveler’s tales. We’ve learned not to be impressed with ourselves for backpacking around a few cities, because we continue to meet retirees who could walk us into the dirt. This particular couple were walking to Ronda FROM EGYPT. Yeah. Just as they were departing, the gentleman dropped that they were 65. I would have guessed early 50s. They were both visibly more muscular than we were and they could technically have been our parents.
Scene Eight: The train station. There happened to be a train station about a three-minute walk from the restaurant. We walked over there and sat on a bench to wait for the train. Some swallows had built nests in the rafters, and we watched them. One of the males called to his mate, a distinct tune of nearly a dozen notes. Then he repeated it. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn he used a sort of grammatical marker, and that this particular tune represented a message or query. Actually I think I’m onto something. I did a study on why ducks quack in Animal Behavior back in college, and it’s clear for anyone to hear that birds make distinct vocalizations in distinct situations. I just don’t happen to speak Passerine.
Scene Nine: The train. We boarded and took our seats, and eventually the conductor came along and sold us tickets. We rode southwest to Algeciras. This train had vending machines, something I’d never seen before. We saw several pairs of hikers with backpacks and walking sticks. I saw my first stork nests, complete with storks.
Scene Ten: Algeciras. Gritty, kinda sketchy, ancient Algeciras. We planned to take a ferry tour to Tangier the next morning, so we were just going to get a hotel for the night and hit the road. There was a camping, but the bus that served it only ran for two months of the year. Due to our tight schedule, we simply stayed at the Marriott, a screaming bargain at $68 for the two of us. Breakfast included. We found a Lebanese place where the cook told us he served plant-based people every day. After our falafel, we booked our tour and figured out where the Port was.
We’d covered so much ground, met so many people, and seen so many sights that we were reeling. Next we’d venture to a new continent for the first time. Where would we eat? Where would we sleep? Our schedule was tentative and we had no idea. Back to the place of uncertainty, this time moving so quickly that we couldn’t really pause to contemplate it.
Waking up in a four-and-a-half star hotel does not suck. Four-star hotel rooms are basically like normal hotel rooms without any of the annoying parts. Everything is comfortable and everything works. The only problem with nice hotels is that they make me want to remodel my bathroom, which I can’t, because we rent. You know, that hotel where you’re the maid and you pay by the month instead of the night, and nobody leaves a mint on your pillow because the dog would probably find it.
We decided that we would choose one activity per day from now on, and that if we had time for anything else, we’d consider it a bonus. Our goal for Ronda was a tour of the nearby Pileta Caves. We had already seen the preposterously beautiful view of the gorge last night, and we’d consider that a win. Well, actually… we went out to the hotel patio and looked at it again. It’s like the human eye is designed to gaze at such sights.
We learned that all the tours for the day were full, so we inquired about one for the following morning. We would get a call back later in the day to tell us whether it was possible. We had already booked two nights in the hotel, so this might mean we would have to extend our reservation by a day. Since we had free time, we thought we might wander through town and finally find the camping that had eluded us the previous day. Perhaps we’d cancel that night’s reservation and relocate so we could say we did it.
We walked down a country road for a ways and changed our minds. We learned later that we could not have gotten any closer without seeing our destination. The signs indicating it from the train station were pointing in the wrong direction, suitable for cars but not pedestrians. We would have been in for a solid 3-mile walk each way even if we knew where to go. Nobody in Ronda seems to know about this camping; one man told us the closest camping was in Algeciras. This is no surprise, as Ronda is something of a resort area. Cyclists would have no trouble getting there, but backpackers will want to think it over.
We went into the Bandolero Museum more or less on a whim. From an historian’s perspective, it’s quite good. The placards explain the nature and importance of documentation, and there is quite a lot of it for such a sensational topic. Anyone who likes firearms, knives, and swords would dig it. They had blunderbusses! There was a profile of a Mr. Julian de Zugasti, the founder of modern police records. We got a kick out of the display of the world’s first mug shots, many of them with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.
Afterward, we had lunch. It was time for our first paella experience. The moment I started asking whether the vegetable paella was vegetarian, the waiters were all over it. They started enthusiastically listing off all the ingredients it didn’t have. Their menu had the obligatory table of officially recognized food allergens, with a row for every dish on the menu. As it turns out, Spain was the easiest place for me to have a non-standard diet out of anywhere I’ve been in the world. It’s almost like they think catering to diners’ preferences will bring them more business or something…
I’ve made “paella” out of cookbooks, but it bore little resemblance to what we had in Spain. More of a sort of risotto in enchilada sauce. As with our tapas experience, it made us want to get some new cookbooks and start experimenting at home. Spanish food is amazing.
We were ready for some climbing. Everything we wanted to see in Ronda was on a hill at one elevation or another. We went to the water mine of La Casa del Rey Moro, checking out the peacocks in the garden before descending. The thing about climbing down a thousand feet is that you then have to turn around and climb up again. Imagine being one of the slaves whose job it was to fetch buckets of water up this thing every day! File under: You Think Your Job Sucks.
We went down and down into what looked very much like a dank dungeon. We renamed it the Mines of Moor-ia. My husband immediately saw it as a boss level in a video game. In each room, he would describe what kinds of creatures would rush out and how they would have to be fought.
“What kind of character are you?” I asked.
“Battle cleric,” he replied, meaning what he would be as his actual self. He’s certified as an emergency medical responder. If I told you about his skills with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, and you hadn’t seen him fight, there’s no way you would believe me. If you’ve met us in person, you probably already know and you’re just nodding.
“Hmm, I can see that. What would I be?”
“Probably a druid.”
I might have guessed bard, due to my skill with foreign languages and epic poetry, but 1. He’s heard me sing and 2. He’s also seen me in my animal form…
We continued down the cobbled road and checked out the Arab Baths. Both the Romans and the later Moors were big on public baths. In the restored space, it was very easy to imagine spending a lot of time relaxing and networking in that manner. These days, not so much. Americans are not comfortable with public nudity. Most people I know would choose public speaking over appearing in a swimsuit, much less the altogether. It would be good for our body image crisis, though, if we could finally realize that 98% of people are utterly ordinary looking. Maybe it would also be good if we traded our national caffeine habit for one of soaking in hot tubs every day.
We took a snack break in a park that had been donated by some past noblewoman. I thought what a fine legacy it is to leave a park or a garden. Long after you’re gone and nobody remembers who you are, long after even the grandchildren of anyone you ever knew are distant memories, people will sit in your park. Children will play, people will fall in love, weary souls will sit and rest, elderly folks will nod off, people will read newspapers and check their phones. Maybe someone will come and play guitar or accordion. We thanked our long-gone benefactress and hoped she was getting some karma points for preserving this little patch of tranquility.
We had just arrived at the old city wall when my phone rang. I haven’t had my ringer on for four years, and all it did was PING once, so I barely recognized the sound for what it was. There I was, standing at a medieval fortress, talking on a 21st century phone, arranging a tour to see some Roman ruins and Neolithic cave paintings. The place was deserted except for us. We could have been time travelers. In fact, we were. Isn’t that part of the point of travel? Trying to get a feel for how people lived in the past?
The feel of standing watch at a city wall must have been one of trepidation mixed with extreme boredom and discomfort. At least there was the view.
We headed toward the bus station to plan the next leg of our trip, but we quickly realized it would be easier to do online. As I was flipping through the guidebook, a note about Gibraltar caught my eye: on Sundays, almost everything on the Rock is closed. That was the day we had intended to go. This confirmed our sense that we needed to sit down and do some more homework, so we picked up provisions at a grocery store (passing on the tuna & onion pizza) and headed back to the hotel. We planned to head out later to see the Mondragon Palace, the last of the sights that intrigued us.
We’d walked 9.5 miles and climbed 36 flights of stairs. The enticements of a comfortable hotel room with unlimited wi-fi proved too great. I spent a couple of hours planning out our options for the next few days, including a day trip to Tangier, a day trip to Gibraltar, and the final leg to Sevilla. Our best option would be to go straight to the train station after our tour the next day, so we’d need to load our packs in the van and check out first thing the next morning.
We just got back from a reading for Born For This and got to meet Chris Guillebeau IN PERSON! If you have a chance to see him while he’s still on tour, go for it. He’s super nice and he puts on a great show. I had already read the book, because I couldn’t wait, so I bought a copy of The $100 Startup and had him sign that for me instead. It’s the last of his books that I haven’t read yet, and I’m saying that because I’m a mega-fan and I think you should be, too. He’s all about finding ways to pay for living your dream.
I’ll talk briefly about the book, because it deserves a close read and attention to the exercises. Just buy it already. Then I’ll address some points that were raised by audience members after the reading.
Most people don’t love their jobs, and most would also laugh ruefully at what an understatement that is. Unfortunately, most people don’t have any better ideas. We get caught up in this idea that we don’t have any other options, or we’re so burned out at the end of the day that we just melt into the couch and try to pretend we don’t have to go back again tomorrow. Born For This would be an excellent choice for anyone who feels this way. It teaches ways to brainstorm and come up with different approaches to the problem of Sounds Great, But How Will It Pay the Bills? This includes ways to raise cash right away, at least some of which I have successfully done.
One of the younger members of the audience asked a question about how to deal with family members who aren’t supportive. When she asked her dad for career guidance before going to college, he said to pick something that paid the bills. I don’t even know where to start with that. First of all, “bills” are totally variable depending on location and chosen lifestyle. Second, everyone I have ever heard suggest options that “pay the bills” has listed off what I consider to be low-paid jobs in insecure fields with a lot of competition for positions. This is where the advice to be “obedient and hard-working” comes from. Obedience means you’re waiting for someone else to tell you what to do, and there are precisely zero well-paid jobs that fit that description. Hard-working? What I learned as I climbed the ladder was that every time I got a pay raise and/or a promotion, the job was easier and it had more perquisites. If you’re interested in being an entrepreneur or having a side hustle, stop asking for advice from naysayers. Just do it. When they give you unsolicited advice, smile and “take it under advisement.” When my dad wanted to know why I was bothering to go back to school, I told him it was so that I could meet and marry a high earner. We’re allowed to joke about these things. My university education paid for itself the first year I went back to work, doing essentially the exact same job for higher pay.
Another audience member had a question that wasn’t really a question. She was carrying a story about how 1. She was too old, 2. The economic crash of 2008 had permanently eliminated opportunities for basically everyone, 3. People had stolen from her, and 4. The book is inspirational but can you prove that it will work for me? She wasn’t old at all, barely older than us anyway, and another audience member of her age addressed that for her. My husband and I were a little puzzled by the reference to the crash, because, hello? That was 8 years ago. It hit us pretty hard at the time, but we rejiggered and got past it. Yeah, he’s pushing 50 and we don’t own a house; like a lot of people, we believe that home ownership is a major financial liability and obstacle to career growth, rather than an asset. About the story of personal betrayal… Again, each of us has been through a divorce that cratered our finances and messed with our credit. This woman had no idea that there were others sitting within a few feet of her who had similar personal histories, but different attitudes. For all we know, the three of us were the luckiest, most solvent, highest-income people in the room.
The thing is, solving problems is the solution to problems. Venting is not the solution to problems. Venting should be done alone, with a journal and a timer, and when the timer goes off, the step of Define the Problem should be complete. Time to move on to the next step, which is to Eliminate That Problem and then Define the Next One.
Can a book work for you? Can a book change your life? That depends. It depends on whether you’re open to new information. If there is salt in your coffee, you have two options. Grimace and chug it down, or toss it over your shoulder and proceed with an empty cup. Don’t go around holding out your salty coffee and showing it to everyone. “I got salty coffee and now it’s cold, too!” Born For This can teach a certain mindset. It can teach troubleshooting exercises. It can offer many diverse examples of other people who have broken free and started doing things they like for more money. What it can’t do is to somehow supernaturally figure out who you are and the details of your individual story, beat down your laundry list of objections, and give you a tailor-made answer of what to do next. The desire to explain in minute, meticulous detail Why My Scenario is Different is just salty coffee. Let that scenario go and start focusing on concrete steps toward something else.
Chris said more than once that he doesn’t want people to say his work is inspirational. He wants it to be practical. He wants us to walk away with specific steps to take and a firm plan. He also says that if something isn’t working, we should quit. I like this. I’ll go along with him and say he’s not motivational or inspirational. He’s purely practical. Do it like this:
Step One: Get a copy of Born For This.
Step Two: Read it.
Step Three: Do the exercises.
Step Four: Put it into practice and just get started.
We were focused. We were organized. We had train tickets and I had lunch fixings. We broke camp and checked out, and I got my passport back. We had great plans for all the fabulous things we were going to see during the rest of our trip. Somehow, we lost track of the most important thing.
We were sitting in Starbucks, drinking tea and trying to catch up on our email. I realized that we had never managed to see the main attraction in Valencia. Did you know this? I didn’t know this. THE HOLY FREAKING GRAIL is in Valencia, Spain. We had walked right by the cathedral that housed it the previous day. In the kerfuffle of mosquito bites and headaches and locked restrooms and aggressive panhandlers, it had fallen off our radar. I thought we had just enough time to walk the half mile over there before heading to the train station.
We would have, too, except that the location shown on TripAdvisor was incorrect. We paced back and forth, GPS in hand, and could not figure out which building it was in. Then came a crisis point. My husband, a highly punctual person, believed that we needed to leave to make our train. I knew ‘late’ meant ’20 minutes early’ to him, and I figured we could spare the <5 minutes to dash in, take a Grail selfie, and dash out. His vote carried, and we turned our backs and walked off. Denied the Grail.
Galahad was the only one of Arthur’s knights who was allowed to behold the Grail, because he was pure and perfect. All the others failed some test of character at some point during their quest. I knew that my failure was one of attention and focus. Add to that self-pity. Probably I had also failed to speak up and advocate for my desires soon enough or convincingly enough. The Grail should have been the very first thing we saw, the moment we got to town, or at least first thing the previous day. Now we were leaving town, most likely never to return. DENIED THE GRAIL.
To say I was crushingly disappointed would be an understatement. I felt like flipping out. I knew he was probably right, and that my lifetime of waltzing up to the gate while the plane was half boarded was too risky for reality. I had no desire to forfeit the hundreds of dollars we’d spent on train tickets, especially not for something we would truly only look at for five minutes.
Do you know what I hate? Clocks. That endlessly ticking tally of microseconds, ineluctably slipping away, slipping away, paring off our lives like a cheese slicer. That tyrannical penitentiary of time.
We got to the train station. I was not crying, but barely. We got to Track 5 with, yes, nearly 20 minutes to spare. NO TRAIN. Maybe it hadn’t come in yet? Then my husband realized that we were at the wrong station. Although we had bought our tickets here, this was the commuter rail, and we needed to be back at the OTHER station for the other trains. The one where we had arrived. There was precisely nothing printed to this effect on our tickets! I didn’t even realize they had been different buildings, because I am useless at navigating; I just thought we had come in at a different entrance. We were nearly a mile away and we had 75 pounds of backpacks.
He was right, he was right, he was right.
We set out at the fastest pace we could sustain. That meant there was a difference between us of half a block within minutes. He was looking for the shuttle bus stop, and if I’d realized this, I would have pointed out that we were facing the wrong way down a one-way street. Also, we had no way of knowing when or how often the shuttle came. Thank goodness he remembered where the station was and knew how to get there. I did my best to keep him in sight and chugged along as fast as I could go, pouring sweat.
We made it, but it was close. The train had already pulled into the station and people were already boarding. We had barely sat down when it pulled away toward Madrid.
We talked it out. I was upset, but now 80% of this was upset at myself for creating this entire mess. Yeah, I’ll probably never see the Holy Grail now. I can’t imagine spending thousands of dollars just to go back to Valencia for five minutes. Even booking the tickets would bring up all these memories of what a twit I was. Maybe we’d get there and the building would be under construction, or closed for some festival, or the Grail would be on loan to a museum, or Pope Francis would be using it or something.
If your dream is to see Every Country in the World, and you’re already 40, you can’t be repeating locations. This isn't just regular FoMO, it's terminal FoMO. Fear of missing out bound up with fear of imminent mortality.
At this moment, I was seriously questioning the wing-it method. Every issue we had had was due to 1. Unrealistic Pinterest-based desires to flit from site to site like an extremely fast migratory hummingbird and 2. Lack of concrete plans. I had done it to myself. Philosophizing did not, however, mean that I was over my acute sadness. I kept thinking of the time I had a chance to see Kurt Vonnegut do a reading at Powell’s, but left with my friends to get lunch first and wound up blowing it off. Regret, regret, regret. Goodbye, beautiful Valencia.
The AVE train took us from Valencia to Madrid in an hour and 40 minutes. That’s a distance of 220 miles. The US equivalent would be Seattle to Salem, or New York to Boston. Having done both of those drives, this boggles my mind. There was barely time for the drinks cart, followed by the lunch cart, followed by the collection of the actual ceramic dishes and metal cutlery.
There are security checkpoints at train stations, and we’d been through them twice so far. This time, to our surprise, we were required to forfeit our propane canisters. Our two plus-size, never-opened propane canisters. We couldn’t even simply forfeit them; my husband had to take them outside, off station property, and throw them in a trash can. We were annoyed, but we should have been about ten times more annoyed. This no-sign, no-warning, no-precedent hassle would turn out to cause us more inconvenience for the rest of the trip than we ever could have imagined. So that’s our lasting impression of Madrid. Can’t you please just post a sign showing prohibited items? And put another one at the ticket windows of the other stations?
If you ever want an entertaining conversation, ask any engineer to explain the technical flaws of international security theater.
We transferred to the slow train, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. We were leaving Catalan country and would hear and see mostly Spanish from here on out. For the rest of the trip, we’d be based in Andalucía.
We arrived in Ronda at precisely 7 PM, just when everything was closing. As we left the train station, we saw a sign pointing toward the camping. This was going to be so easy! We walked along and found a second sign. We couldn’t find the camping, though, and we found a bench where we could regroup.
We were back in the place of uncertainty. Thanks to the meticulous security guards of the Madrid train station, we had no way to cook our meals until we could find a camping store. Think about the city where you live and whether you know of a store that sells backpacking fuel canisters. This is another problem that is hardly unique to Spain, one we could easily encounter anywhere at home. The closest one to my house is in a different city, about a half hour drive away. In Iceland, every single camping we visited had a ‘free’ shelf or table, where campers could leave or take things they didn’t need, and partially used propane canisters were the most common item. We never saw a ‘free’ shelf in Spain. Looking back, we could have anticipated a need for a backup cooking method, and now we’re planning to test out an immersion coil and a cheap, lightweight hot plate. If we can’t get something already on the market to work, my husband may put his electrical engineering skills to work and modify something.
We walked to the town Tourist Information center, but it was already closed. We took a moment to walk to the nearby viewpoint and check it out. The sun was setting. There was a Spanish man playing accordion. An older French couple under the gazebo danced a few steps of the tango. The view over the gorge was everything anyone could have wanted. The soft evening light showed the valley at its best. Birds flew far below. This was why we came to Spain, and specifically Ronda. There are perfect places in this world, and perfect moments to be had. No mundane concerns can survive in the face of such singular beauty.
An executive decision was made. We couldn’t find the camping, we didn’t have cooking fuel, and it was getting late. My husband decided we were going to stay in a hotel and go out to dinner. If we were going to do it, we were going all-out. We walked up the street to the Reina Victoria, checked in, and walked back to town for Indian food. We don’t compromise. All the nights in the tent amortize the cost of the two nights in a fine hotel, which to us is a much better solution than spending the entire trip in budget rooms. We shifted gears, prepared to get back to Tent City after we hit the road again, but meanwhile, we were going to enjoy Ronda to the utmost.
If you go to Valencia, which I suggest you do, you’ll have a better time than I did. I’ll start with a diatribe about a little obstacle in our trip, and some general travel philosophy. Or you can scroll down to the rooftop photo.
I wake up throughout the night whenever I sleep in a tent, so it took a few iterations before I started to realize that something was waking me up. I kept scratching my hand and wrist. Then I heard the distinctive whine of a mosquito in my ear. I grumbled and rolled over, not wanting to turn on the lantern and wake up my dear sleeping husband. Inches to my left, on the other side of my tent door, was my pack. I keep it oriented so that I can reach the top flap, which is where I keep things I might want to access quickly. I knew my head net was in there because I had finally made a rule that anything as lightweight and small as that should just live in my pack. I found the head net, pulled it on, zipped my door closed again, tucked my hands inside the sleeping bag, and managed to fall asleep.
In the morning the story became clear. There were TWENTY mosquitos in the tent. We have to do root cause on this stuff, because if there’s a hole in the tent, then we need to patch it. Darling husband has immediately realized this was his doing. He got thirsty in the night, unzipped his door to get his water bottle, and left the door unzipped as he fell back to sleep. Root cause: water bottle not inside tent. Solution: make sure bottle is in tent before falling asleep. Bonus: pay attention when camp is adjacent to a bird sanctuary/protected wetlands.
We’ve zipped our sleeping bags together, meaning there can be a large opening down the middle of our bed. He’s lying on his side, his entire bare back exposed. I’m wearing thermal underwear. His total: zero bites. Mine: twelve. I have four in the middle of my forehead, one on my eyebrow, two on the end of my nose, and one on my ******* eyelid. There’s one directly under my watch, two more on my wrist and hand, and one on my hip. I feel infected, polluted, and disfigured. I want to explain to people: I DON’T REALLY LOOK LIKE THIS! I don’t look like I have bug bites; I look like I have some birth defects and a case of acne.
After my shower, I clean my ears with a cotton swab. Then I die. THERE WAS A DEAD MOSQUITO INSIDE MY EAR. There. I said it. I checked the weather forecast for our trip before we left, deliberately wondered whether there would be mosquitos, and decided it would be too cold. I didn’t bring bug spray and I didn’t bring my Therapik, either. Much as I love the Therapik, I wouldn’t have used it on my eyelid, so I would still have been in a rough mood.
This is something to know about travel. No matter whether you travel alone, with a lover, with family, with business colleagues, in a group of friends or strangers – there will be other humans. Sometimes you will do things to them and sometimes they will do things to you. Sometimes it will be intentional and sometimes it will be unintentional. Travel is stressful, and the only way to have fun is to remember that at all times. It can be so stressful that it can put you into an altered state of consciousness. Friendships end on big trips all the time, and love affairs do, too. I think if we were all more honest about the rigors and annoyances and depressing moments of travel, it would be easier to accept them philosophically and not let them ruin a trip.
The funny thing was that my husband apologized profusely, over and over again, but I didn’t blame him. How could I? I have a major parasomnia disorder (or several) and I do bizarre things in my sleep all the time. There is no way I could ever judge someone for doing something in a state of confusional arousal. He was half asleep and he made a mistake. It wasn’t his doing, it was the mosquitos’ doing. That didn’t mean I didn’t itch like crazy, and it didn’t mean I wasn’t paranoid about coming down with Zika virus, West Nile, malaria, or all three. All that happened was that when I complained about itching, he felt criticized and judged, while I would only really judge him for leaving the tent door unzipped while he was awake, which is a different story. We both agreed that it was a little unfair for the bugs to devour me and leave him untouched. At least vampires ask to be invited in first.
About nagging: it doesn’t really work. At least I don’t think it works past a certain age. My dad started taking me camping when I was 2 years old, and he was very rigorous in instilling certain habits. Tent doors are always zipped closed immediately after coming or going. If you can set up your time machine so you are simultaneously emerging and zipping, so much the better. Zipper pulls always line up in the precise center of any door, backpack pocket, window flap, suitcase lid, etc. By the time I was 9 I’m sure I thought my dad’s way was the only way. It made sense to me that everyone could always find the zippers in the dark, half asleep, in a serious hurry. When you wind up having to pee three times in the night, the idea sells itself. What I’ve had to learn through a couple of dozen roommates is that just because an idea makes sense to me, does not mean anyone but me values it in the same way. I’ve tried to focus on areas where I can teach myself to be more conscientious and agreeable any time someone else’s differing habits don’t mesh perfectly with mine.
We set off downtown. I was tired, headachy, and of course itchy. The beautiful weather, warmer than Barcelona, was a help, and we were both looking forward to a nice day of exploration. We stopped at Starbucks for tea and decisions. We had a tourist map and TripAdvisor; the guidebook didn’t even include Valencia in the index. It looked like we could easily see everything we wanted to see and be done in plenty of time for the last bus to camp.
The first thing we did was to climb a bell tower and look at the view. There are a lot of tiny rooftop apartments in Valencia with little patios. It looks like a lot of Spaniards actually live the way Pinterest would want you to think they do.
Then I had to find a restroom. This is a chronic problem in Spain. Either there’s nowhere at all to go, there’s a pay toilet and you need exact change, there’s a combination lock, or the restroom is beyond San Francisco-level scary. We wound up going to a Burger King, where we needed a receipt and each restroom had a different passcode. My husband bought some fries for the cause. As he was eating the fries, an aggressive beggar came in and made a beeline straight for us. This happens to us at home on about a weekly basis, so we can’t really consider it a Spanish problem. The man had a posterboard with pictures of his kids glued on, or at least that was the assumption. His response to “No Spanish” was to start gesticulating and pantomiming putting food in his mouth.
Most places in the world have beggars. The most recent census for Los Angeles County, where I live, indicates over 46,000 homeless people. I have worked in a homeless shelter, a drug rehab, a transitional housing office, and other social services providers, so I’m familiar with the issue. I know that even if we could hand everyone who asked us for money $10,000, it wouldn’t solve the problem. We give to a soup kitchen and various canned food drives, I have sponsored a student in Zambia for a few years now, and we have done micro-lending together since before we started dating.
Can you tell how defensive I am about this?
Aggressive panhandlers always leave me shaken and upset. At home, I try to talk to people about whether they are aware of all the services in the area. On foreign ground, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if we’re being shaken down by scam artists or if this poor man really does have physically starving little children at home. I can’t stop thinking about him and this incident for the next several hours.
We go to the Almoina Archaeological Center, one of the best museums we’ve seen, and check out the Roman ruins. The entire basement of the building is a preserved dig area, like the 871 Museum in Reykjavik. They have skeletons down there, which is a bit spooky. They also have intact glass vials, which is even spookier in a way. I mean, after a few thousand years, we expect people to have passed away and become skeletons, but… glass?
We pop into a little bookstore, still hoping for a birding guide, but it’s all popular titles in Spanish, with a major focus on self-improvement. Much of the same stuff that’s trendy at home, from yoga to juicing to gluten-free food, is also trendy in Spain.
We go to the city wall and climb to the top. Spain is full of forts and fortresses and castles. It’s strange that we have this romantic image of castles, when they were built to defend against foreign invaders. Most of them hopefully never needed to be used for their intended purpose, but some of them represent the deaths of hundreds of people due to battle or siege. Almost anyone who ever spent any time in a castle did so as part of a physically demanding job description with little or no autonomy. If you were there, you might well have been cleaning chamber pots. I thank my lucky stars that I live in the 21st century in a little suburban rental house.
We wandered halfway across town to a veg-friendly tapas place I had found. We had never had tapas before. We understood that tapas is really a name for Smartest Way to Share Restaurant Meals ever. You basically choose a bunch of appetizers and eat them for dinner. If you want more of one particular dish than the others, you order a larger portion. There wasn’t anything particularly Spanish about any of the individual dishes that we could tell. There was something from all of our favorite cuisines. If every restaurant in the world served meals tapas-style, it would probably result in world peace.
We went to the Falla Museum just before it closed for the day. Fallas are what would happen if Norman Rockwell painted the Garbage Pail Kids and they were then made into Rose Bowl Parade floats, with Burning Man afterward. The museum had a scale model of every winning entry dating back to the 1930s. Many of them abjectly failed any modern sense of political correctness. One was so alarming that I haven’t even shown the picture to anyone because it really needs a trigger warning.
Across from the little Falla Museum was the City of the Arts and Sciences. This place was amazing, partly in its own right, and partly due to its proximity to the Casco Antiguo, or historic district. Thousands of years of human history, and it showed. We had to hustle through it on our way to the grocery store. It was another moment of I Could Live Here. There were a lot of runners going by, and I knew that I’d be doing the same a few times a week if I were local.
We bought our groceries and waited at the bus stop, anxious that we were too late. I wanted to sit on a curb, but I saw a rat scurrying through the hedge, and then a few more. It had been a long, weary day. Valencia was a truly lovely place, enchanting really, but I felt like I could use a rest day. Instead, we wound up doing laundry back at camp. That’s where we met a friendly French teacher, who said she loved coming to Spain because the Spanish people are so warm and they really know how to throw a festival.
The problem with travel is that every now and then, a city will break your heart. You’ll have to leave. You’ll have no idea when you can go back. You’ll add it to the list of other cities that have likewise broken your heart, and realize that this might be it. This might be the last time you’ll walk these streets. In your mind, there’s a private map, where you can walk from one cherished locale to another, even though they are thousands of miles apart and some of them haven’t existed in that form for decades. That a place of this caliber might exist in reality, rather than in dreams or isolated fragments, is part of what propels the travel fantasy.
We had to leave Barcelona. We had to go if we wanted to see any other part of Spain. Of course we also had to leave if we ever wanted to see our pets again, or when our travel visas expired, but this is a matter of the heart, not of pragmatism. We had a magnificent lunch in La Rambla, at Teresa Carles, which is the last thing you want to do if you intend to board a train with any sense of complacency or a casual air of practicality. Dammit, Barcelona, you gorgeous bitch. Why is there only one of you?
Then we got to Valencia and all was forgotten.
Let’s step back a bit. There’s a lot of reality in the blank wall between canvases. We got up in the morning and had to break camp. We stopped by the front office to check out and discovered that we’d lost track of time and overstayed by a day. We wouldn’t have found out (and neither would they) if we’d just walked away and boarded the bus, a trusting manner that is not universal in campings. We paid our arrears. We took the bus downtown, and the first two places we had intended to eat lunch weren’t open yet. When we hit the road again, we had to rush through the many Escherian staircases of the Metro, with our packs on, and we were sweaty and flustered when we got to the train station. Then we stood in line before realizing that our first-class tickets entitled us to cut through.
Probably the major reason why modern rail travel is not more prevalent in the US is that we have no idea what we’re missing. Our experience with train travel in Spain was that its punctuality was impeccable, its amenities were far nicer than what is offered by airlines, and it was safe, clean, and comfortable. Even as non-native speakers, we had no trouble figuring out how to use the system.
We pulled into Valencia with a feeling of success. All the travel arrangements we had made on our trip so far had been successful. There had been no delays, nothing had been sold out, we hadn’t lost anything or had anything stolen, and we hadn’t even been deported. We were in the place of uncertainty, only without the usual sense of discomfort. We went straight to the Tourist Information booth at the train station, and I got completely intelligible Spanish directions to a grocery store. The agent was fluent in English, so he checked with me afterward to make sure I understood. I thought that was tactful. We ventured out in the sunshine and caught a shuttle bus downtown.
Where Barcelona is magnetically cool and atmospheric, Valencia is fall-down pretty. It’s prettier than the pastel parts of San Francisco. It’s prettier than Victoria. It’s almost impossible to find a single view that isn’t photogenic. The question is how people get any work done at all in a place like this. How do you learn to tune it out?
The first thing we found was an “Herbolario.” It had the look of a high-end health food store, and we went in, despite our unwieldy packs. The place turned out to be ginormous. It had the widest selection of dairy alternatives and veggie convenience foods that I have ever seen, and I say that as a Portland native who lives in Southern California. We set ourselves up for dinner and breakfast, although we had yet to figure out where we would cook or eat these supposed meals, nor where we would sleep. I wished I had known to look for herbolarios in Barcelona, and I added the term to my Spanish lexicon.
We had a little time afterward – not enough to do any sightseeing, which we wouldn’t want to do with our full packs anyway. The priority was to get to a Starbucks, get on wi-fi, and find a camping for the night. I had gotten a message while we were in Barcelona that we had already used half the wi-fi allotment from our passport; it turned out that I had been on data part of the time when I thought I was on camp wi-fi, due to my phone settings. I’ve been using the same OS for over four years and I didn’t know about the ‘data roaming’ setting. This got more annoying when I couldn’t pay to extend our plan, got no error message, and found out only after we got home that it was all due to an expiration date on my debit card. Hopefully this digression can help a fellow traveler who hasn’t yet hit dumb stumbling blocks like this. To add another, the Starbucks we sought was in the process of relocation. We found another only a few minutes up the street. In Spain, if there are any Starbucks locations at all, they tend to cluster in a small area.
We found three campings in Valencia, all in a row on the same road and the same bus line. That was settled. We did have to watch out, though, because that bus quit running two hours earlier than the bus to the camping in Barcelona. (8 PM instead of 10). Cab fare can add up quickly, so we had to watch it. NEVER ASSUME that a bus will run on a particular day of the week, to a particular area, on a weekend or holiday, during particular hours, or on a predictable schedule of any kind. Also don’t assume that it runs the same route in both directions, that one coach will remain on the same route after a transfer point, or that every run will cover the same route, because detours happen for all sorts of reasons. Confirm, confirm, confirm. We knew this from using buses at home, so we did our homework.
Our next goal was to organize the rest of our trip. When I had chosen cities that looked interesting, I hadn’t factored in travel time; part of my assumption with the wing-it method was that we would plan as we went. I had given no thought whatsoever to how many hours it took to get from one city to another, or what time of day we would arrive. Essentially, any day of transition will be eaten up entirely by that transition. Between breaking and setting up camp, getting to and from bus or train stations, waiting for connections, making the trip itself, finding stores, buying supplies, and checking in at various desks, not much is left. I use physical travel time to catch up with my travel journal, which is usually at least a day behind, but otherwise it’s a wash. I realized I had chosen too many places and that our pace would be too rapid. We settled down to do some serious research and planning and make some decisions.
Our first step was to check travel times between cities. A cursory once-over of the rail map had led us to believe that we could take the train around the southeastern perimeter of Spain, seeing one city after another. Next on our planned itinerary was Granada. In point of fact, a trip from Valencia to Granada would take so long that we dropped it from consideration. We looked at shuffling the order of the cities we had chosen, tried approaches from other cities, and finally decided it would be easier to drop it from this trip entirely. There! Cutting a city freed up the three days we had allocated, and we felt we had breathing room. During the process, I reintroduced Madrid as a possible transfer point, and that stuck.
Over the two hours we bogarted our table, enjoying our steamy beverages, we spread out the guidebook, the index cards, and our phones. We had the bright idea that we could take a day trip to Tangier. We would be so close to Africa as we explored Gibraltar, how could we not take advantage of the opportunity? Thus we unthinkingly reversed ourselves, adding more rapid city changes and increasing our pace again. If we hadn’t had to leave for the bus, we might have gone through another revision, but we felt satisfied. We were winging it, after all.
We took off in a hurry. My husband was looking at the map and comparing it to street signs, which can be challenging to find and identify, as they are often nothing more than ceramic plaques attached to building fronts. He thought we were getting off track because the names didn’t match. This was when I realized I had already started decoding Catalan by comparing it to Spanish signs. I know a bit of French, Spanish, and Latin, and while I wouldn’t claim to understand Catalan, in the limited context of signs, advertisements, and public service announcements, I was getting by.
We took the bus to the camping and got there just after it had technically closed. The camp manager was friendly and brought us in. One of us (me) had to leave a passport as collateral, which hadn’t happened in Barcelona. We learned that the exact process of check-in varies depending on where you stay. I received a gate key to use if we came back late the next day. He walked us to our spot, a gravel rectangle between RVs, and bid us goodnight. We set up camp and had a nice dinner. We looked forward to a day of fine weather and exploration of the lovely town we had glimpsed, one mysterious due to its complete omission from our guidebook. We had no idea the night would lead to an unfortunate event that would color our experience of the next few days.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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