It’s my birthday, a time I like to think about what I’ve done over the past year and what I want to be doing by this time next year. Typically this includes asking myself why I keep trying to plan something special, because somehow or other I always seem to manage to mess it up.
Classic birthday fun: Discovering stinging nettle the hard way, getting a second-degree sunburn in a weird pattern that didn’t fade for two years, stepping barefoot in puppy leavings, and now, sitting around for forty minutes at a bus station in Aberdeen because nobody updated the website with the school holiday schedule.
In a way, I think of it as good luck. If whatever dumb and annoying thing that’s going to happen to me through my own ineptitude is going to happen on my birthday, then maybe I can avoid that sort of thing the rest of the year?
Also, it’s raining, something else I try to see as a sign of good luck. It rained on our wedding day (Northern Hemisphere in August) and there is a superstition that this brings prosperity. After ten years I can tentatively say that this seems to have been borne out.
At some point in the last year, I made a list of “43 for 43” - things that I wanted to do for fun, to make the year special. I can only claim to have completed a dozen of the 43 items. That’s because this thing called “fun” doesn’t come all that naturally to me. I tend to be an intense, driven, restless sort of person and if I don’t plan and calculate, all the fun tends to get left off the list.
Sixteen of the items are fitness-related and I didn’t do any of them.
One thing I can say I’m proud of crossing off that list: I helped celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. If I hadn’t started nagging everyone about it almost five months in advance I think it probably would have been a last-minute family dinner, rather than a memorable vacation weekend.
I am good at recognizing spontaneous opportunities when they come along. That’s why I can claim to have done a bunch of random fun things in spite of myself. For instance, since we came to the U.K. I have taken serious advantage of the widespread availability of vegan food. I’ve had a sausage roll, a Magnum bar, and a Jaffa cake, and I even tracked down a bag of Starburst! (With blackcurrant!) We’ve walked fifty miles in five days, including days when we spent 9-10 hours on a plane or a train, and I’ve spotted twenty species of birds for my life list so far.
Eat, walk, look at birds, repeat. That’s sort of me all over.
If there’s one thing to do on a birthday, it’s to think about your favorite people, favorite places, and favorite things. Are you spending time with your loved ones and doing what really matters to you?
I realized when camping last month that I hadn’t been in a forest in two years. It took five minutes to commit that that should never happen again. I had forgotten who I was.
That brought up a series of thoughts about things that are “really me” that I haven’t been doing much lately, if at all. Traveling, cooking and having dinner parties, distance running, spending time in the woods, heck, even doing cryptograms. Too much focus on goals and self-improvement can eventually crowd out everything else.
Then I remember that it’s been a tough year. I spent a lot of time ill for about eight months, started having the occasional episode of migraine or night terrors after a four-year hiatus, and then rounded it out with a bunch of oral surgery. Whee. I can forgive myself for not having some kind of “perfect year” or hitting every single benchmark.
Of course I can also say that I feel like I deserve better from my physical vessel and that I’m hoping for better health, vitality, and well-being in the coming year. I want to get back to running again. I miss hills for breakfast. Also I can hardly wait until our lease is up and we can move to a place that doesn’t have loud, early-rising upstairs neighbors. I’d prefer to be thinking about more interesting things than why my neighbor feels the need to do her vacuuming at 8:00 AM.
When she was a little girl, did she dream about being the world’s most meticulous housekeeper?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to read every book in the world and I wanted my own parrot. One down, one to go.
Incidentally, Noelie just had her 21st hatch day. I owe her a berry.
I’ve been nodding off in the middle of writing this, on a bus with the heater on, having slept poorly in a sleeper car on a train last night. Snapping awake made me feel like a doddering elderly person. If I’m lucky that will happen one day! One day I’ll be quite old and I can tell patient young people what it was like in the Eighties, when phones had cords, VHS tapes cost $99, and you had to go to your friend’s house to play games or watch music videos.
I might be halfway through my life, I might go tomorrow, and maybe I’ve got another 65 years. Who knows? Who knows what sorts of dramatic changes and technological innovations I’ll see in my time? What will become of me?
All I know is what I’ve learned, which is that it’s good to be grateful for what you have, it’s good to stay in touch with your values, your family, and your old friends, it’s good to see the world, it’s good to save money, and it’s good to take care of your health and your teeth.
Now I’m off to start my personal new year with some travel, some time in the woods, some more intensive journaling, some birdwatching, and the absurdly early bedtime suitable to a lady of my age and station.
Out of ten days, I spent eight traveling and backpacking. Apparently this is a thing I do now. I just got back on Sunday. It is still really weird to me that I have gone from needing help to get out of bed in the morning, to hiking into mountain goat zone with a backpack. Both felt natural at the time. When did I turn into this bushwhacking, rock-clambering person?
On the first trip, I was the eldest of six in our group. This is both strange and not-strange. Almost every single one of the dozens of people we saw on the trail was under 30. Usually, though, backpackers tend to skew a bit older. On weekdays you get retirees. Most endurance sports include more older than younger people due to the cash flow issues. Mature people can afford the equipment, the gas, and the permit fees. We also tend to be better organized, mostly because we have more control over our schedules. Getting a group of half a dozen people to arrive at the same place at the same time can be pretty complicated, especially if most or all of them work unpredictable shifts.
We were fortunate enough to win the permit lottery and hike into the Enchantments, the same route that we did back in September. This proved to be an interesting experiment. We were able to add mileage and camp at a higher elevation, and then do a day hike yet further up the mountain. 5500 feet! It made me want to repeat the Portland Marathon (knowing I would be virtually guaranteed to run a PR). All told, we hiked fourteen miles round-trip, and ten of that while wearing packs. I’m not sure exactly how much my pack weighed, because I crammed more stuff into it after the “official” weigh-in, not wanting my husband to know just how much I was planning to carry. It was at least 40 pounds though.
Why would a 122-pound, small-framed person such as myself want to carry a 40-pound backpack 5000 feet up a mountain? This is the crossroads of minimalism and endurance training. On the one hand, I want to carry as little as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. On the other hand, I want to carry as much as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. Here lies a real conundrum. The truth is that I don’t really feel the weight, and I feel like I will wind up carrying more than that if/when I graduate to longer trips. I’d really like to hike the Triple Crown one day, and it seems like being able to carry seven days’ worth of supplies would make that more likely.
Minimalism can often involve quite a lot of stuff. For a backpacker, I’m on the middling-to-absurd end. For a suburbanite, I’m on the extreme end. What have I got in there? I don’t tolerate cold at all well, so most of the heavy gear consists of bedding and clothing. There’s the sleeping bag, air mattress, space blanket, and inflatable pillow. There are the three jackets, the base layer, the hat and gloves and buff and package of hand warmers. I put them on at night and I still sit there shivering; I go to bed at 9 PM more because I’m cold than because I’m tired. There’s the water and the first aid kit, because really. There’s the inflatable solar lantern and the folding chair for luxury. Then there’s the cookpot, the stove, the fuel, and the food. Here is where I can cut weight easily: I tend to bring boil-in-a-bag meals rather than dehydrated food. I’m perfectly capable of dehydrating my own backpacking meals, and I have done so, but it’s so much more work that it seems worth it to just haul a heavy pack. If I cut five pounds of food or gear, I’d almost certainly add back five pounds of gear I don’t usually carry, such as a machete or another base layer. If only I had a 3D printer that could make things out of squashed mosquitos.
The second trip was less physically taxing, but I’ll include it for comedic purposes. A raccoon tore my tent. I got some mosquito bites, and I finally had my beloved Therapik with me, but as soon as I pushed the button I found that the 9V battery had died. The batteries in my head lamp had also gone flat. I packed for cold weather again, only to find that it was over 80 degrees every day, and I hadn’t brought any shorts, swimsuit, or sunblock. I still have never used the sunhat I bought at Goodwill years ago for this purpose, and I have the sunburned ears to prove it. I didn’t bring quarters for the shower. We went to this park specifically in hope of seeing a condor, hiked five miles to the preferred viewing area, and saw nary a one. Just as I was taking down the tent on the way home, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit my knee. Like it couldn’t wait ten more minutes for me to leave.
It turns out that the outdoor life has toughened me up considerably. I can now state that stinging nettle and fire ant bites rate about the same, as the pain is worse from the fire ant but it only lasts about half as long. I’m (almost) grateful that these things happened, because I was able to endure without setting off a migraine or a fibromyalgia flare-up. I used to be a frail little flower indeed. Now, I’m tougher than just about anyone. Maybe one day I’ll feel that I’ve proved my point and I can convince myself to pack a lighter bag.
Our last full day in Sevilla would be a full one, as full as we could make it. We were going to extract every last drop from the place. We knew we’d be spending many hours sitting over the next two days, and we could catch up on sleep then. As events would transpire, we’d be getting even more than we bargained for.
The wing-it method has wings. While we were eating breakfast, I saw a particularly fat bird in a tree. I leaned over to get a better look and it fluttered down a few yards in front of us. I was gobsmacked. “It’s a HOOPOE!” Just that one moment, long enough to get a good look at it, not long enough to get a picture. The hoopoe is mostly an African bird, and I didn’t know its range extended into southern Spain. If we had stayed in a hotel or gone to a restaurant for breakfast, we would have missed the moment.
We decided to do two locations and see a late flamenco show. Due to the show schedule, we’d splurge and get dinner downtown as well. Since we were leaving town, we could save the few odd bits of food we had left for our trip.
We started with the General Archive of the Indies. It’s a museum dedicated to the Spanish exploration of the New World. The TripAdvisor reviews said it was great even if you didn’t know any Spanish, and they were right. It’s absolutely a world-class museum. If only every museum were designed this well! We were riveted. The main exhibit at that time had to do with the discovery of a ship that had been sunk in 1804. The British intercepted a Spanish flotilla that was sending money to Napoleon, and just happened to sink the one carrying the gold and silver. An American salvage operation found this treasure ship, and there followed years of litigation that is still ongoing a decade later. The millions of dollars in coins and ingots were displayed for all to see, as though Spain were saying HA HA. This would have interested us regardless, but my husband is particularly interested in the Napoleonic Era. He explained the different kinds of ships, armaments, and military strategy to me. He also knows quite a lot about numismatics, or the study of coins. We were both astounded when I proved to be able to translate about 80% of all the placards on the exhibits. We loved this museum, and so did the treasure hunters; it turns out the Archive is the source of much of the documentation that helps aquatic archaeologists know where to look for all the awesome loot.
We left the museum, chattering a mile a minute. The weather was great and we were really having fun. We walked over to a little indoor mall we had found two days earlier, knowing that the restaurant would be open for business this time. It was a cute punk vegan place. I was able to chat with the proprietress a bit. “Soy vegana por veinte años.” While we were eating, a guitarist came by and sang to us. He was terrific. Probably another sign of over-qualified people hit hard by the tanking of the economy in 2008. This out-of-the-way mall had a lot going on. We overheard a flamenco dance class behind a wall. As we were strolling around, we came upon another restaurant where a group of Spanish people were singing in accompaniment to a flamenco guitarist. They smiled at us. Most of the mall was deserted, shopfronts locked down, so what we witnessed was a private moment among Spaniards.
Culture is what happens when people show up and do things with sincerity. The flamenco group wasn’t putting on a public performance. They were entertaining one another in a casual moment of friendship. What does it cost? One guitar and some strings. There is no reason whatsoever why there couldn’t be informal flamenco groups in every city. Or any other genre of music or dance. Whenever people complain that there’s nothing to do in their town, I wonder what they mean. Come up with something.
For the afternoon, we wanted to go to the Roman ruins of Italica. It wasn’t mentioned in any of the guidebooks; I’d only seen it while surfing through TripAdvisor. WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH GUIDEBOOK WRITERS?!? This place was UNBELIEVABLE. It’s still being excavated and it’s the size of a small town. There were about a dozen house foundations with complete, full-color mosaic tile floors. There was an entire gladiatorial stadium. It went on and on. We were literally sprinting from one spot to another. Why sprint? The location in TripAdvisor was about five miles off from the true site, and we wound up on a sort of snipe hunt on the bus before we could get there. We only had, get this, FORTY MINUTES at Italica before we had to catch the bus back and watch our flamenco show.
Going to the wrong place and losing the majority of the time you had dedicated to something can be a serious bummer. We were learning to be philosophical, though. A full day would barely have been enough to do justice to Italica, for us anyway. There was no way we could have known how extensive the site was from the material we had seen. We saw enough to know we wanted to know more. We could go home, read up on the site, and if we ever came back, more of it would be excavated for us to see. It’s conceivable, given that he has a master’s in engineering and I have a history degree, that we could even talk our way onto a dig crew.
What happened on the bus trip to nowhere? We saw more of Spain. We wound up in a neighborhood just as the moms were picking their kids up from school. We saw a stand of rental bicycles, which we considered, but we weren’t sure if we would have to return them to the same spot. On the ride back, we saw a pair of female acrobats busking in an intersection by doing lifts and hula hooping. We saw teams of boats doing crew practice on the river. We saw people running or hanging out by the waterfront. It was another great slice of what life could be like if we lived in Sevilla: It’s a Great Place to Visit AND I Want to Live There.
One thing we saw while we were waiting for the bus disturbed us. We weren’t completely sure what to make of it. There was a borracho on the median strip shouting at a guy at our bus stop. He was clearly insulting him. At one point he started yanking on his crotch. I couldn’t understand what he was saying due to the traffic noise and my limited vocabulary of verbal abuse. Did these guys know one another? Or did this have something to do with the fact that the target of the obnoxious shouting happened to be black? This man took the barrage of invective with good humor, awkwardly smiling, like, “What the heck? That guy’s crazy.” He went to catch a bus, and the buffoon picked a rose off the landscaping in the median and tried to offer it to the black gentleman through the bus window. The whole thing went on for at least five minutes. We still couldn’t figure out if they knew each other, although I don’t think so. I don’t even know what I would have done if this happened at home, in my own language, and I had a better grasp of what was going on. All we could really do in Spain was watch silently and stand by in case things escalated. Shouting across the street can be waited out; anything physical would have been a different scenario. In all our time in Spain, this was an extreme, isolated incident. The black guy’s patient, embarrassed reaction seemed more typical of a Spaniard than the weird behavior of the white jerk.
When we got to the edge of the historic district, we had to walk. Not just walk, but hustle. On foot was our only option. My husband took over navigating from his phone, and I scurried after him as quickly as I could. We covered about a mile and a half in under half an hour. We managed to get to the hotel with our flamenco show with five minutes to spare, enough time not just to claim our seats but even to freshen up in the restroom.
Flamenco is the cultural product of the Expulsion. People who were not of the Catholic majority went to live in exile in the mountains of Andalucía, and the melding of gypsy, Moorish, and Jewish cultures produced this phenomenal blend of music, dance, fashion, and attitude. It comes in four parts: guitar, voice, dance, and audience response, which has a codified repertoire of callbacks, clapping, and snapping. Listening to recorded flamenco music or watching a video in no way does justice to the galvanizing nature of a live performance. You can see the sweat flying out of the dancers’ hair. Watching this show was the shortest hour of our lives. I think we forgot our names. So often, shows put on for tourists become hackneyed, saccharine, and exploitive. This felt like we were graciously allowed to observe something the troupe would have done for fun even without an audience.
We were going to eat dinner before the show, but our mishap with the bus had disrupted that plan. We decided to simply go back to the Lebanese place where we had eaten on our first night. It was still warm out. We sat at a sidewalk table and watched the world go by. The mesmerizing foot traffic of Sevilla had one last surprise in store for us. For the first and only time, we happened to see a young man cruise by on a motorized unicycle with no seat. It takes a lot to render an engineer speechless, but that did it.
We took a cab back to camp and had to have someone open the gate for us. We spent a little time organizing our stuff before bed, knowing we’d have to get an early start the next day. We had ended on a high note, having the best day in the best city. O Spain, O Sevilla.
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.
The “wing-it method” took over in unintentional ways on our second full day in Barcelona. We had an agenda. This was the one day of the week when local Catalan people gathered to do some traditional dance in front of the cathedral. There was also an event flyer I’d photographed, a street fair later in the afternoon where we could probably get lunch. We try to have one or two specific places we’d like to see, and let the rest of the day unfold naturally around that. Usually, it even works!
The bus into town stopped a mile short of our destination. We thought we’d misunderstood the schedule, and we were racking our brains trying to figure out what we’d misread. As we walked in the intended direction, we kept seeing people heading in our direction and wearing race bibs. Aha! By the lack of exhaustion and relative freshness of the clothing, I deduced that it was probably a 5k, although we never did find out. The race detour is a perfect example of something that could just as well have happened at home. We have to take these things in stride, to coin a phrase.
Detours are the best way to see parts of a country that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. There tend to be official tourist zones where everything is scrubbed up and Bowdlerized. Local people avoid these zones. The prices are higher, there’s no parking, the food isn’t good, and tourist sites aren’t all that relevant to most people’s daily lives (unless they work there). Getting lost or shunted onto a different route is a quick way to peek behind the curtain.
We needed cash. This is an area where travel differs from home life. At home, we rarely need cash, but on trips, we’re constantly paying bus fare, tipping, or finding ourselves at restaurants that only take one form of payment. It also turns out that pay toilets are a common feature in Spain, so it’s best to hang onto those 10- and 20-cent euro coins.
What is more annoying than a pay toilet? An ATM that eats your card. What’s more annoying than that? Seeing the error message in a minority language spoken by fewer than 5 million people. Okay, there’s also a certain coolness factor, but it was hard to appreciate that at the moment. This was a full 60 seconds in the place of uncertainty, with one foot inching over to the place of panic. Fortunately, there was a customer service number with a live person on the other end, and we sorted out the problem. The card had simply expired. We had other options on hand, and we would have to accept that that old card was never leaving Spain. Oh well.
We went on our way, seeing more and more people in race bibs. We cut over toward the Cathedral, but slowed down when we saw a massive crowd in the streets. What was happening? This was one of the all-time great serendipitous moments provided by the wing-it method. We had no idea this was going on, but we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and only because of both the bus detour and the ATM mishap. After a few minutes, we started to understand what was happening. Some kind of acrobatic stunt? We hadn’t seen the first ring of strongmen in national garb, but we did see the men who climbed up on their shoulders. A gang of people climbed up the first two tiers of men and got up on the shoulders of the second ring. Wow! That’s impressive! We were astonished when they kept going, and going, all the way to seven. Lighter and lither young girls climbed up, and at the very top were some spry children. They had barely made it to the top when they immediately clambered down again, using the waist sashes as footholds. We realized it was a timed race, and that there were teams represented by different shirt colors. This was not something I would expect to see anywhere in the US on an average Sunday. It was over in minutes but I’ll never forget it.
We were close to the Cathedral at that point. We could hear the music. There was another crowd, and as we walked up, we saw the circle dance, just like it said in the guidebook. I was so excited! I was going to join right in and try to learn the steps. We saw about two minutes of it, the song ended, the dancers disbanded, and that was the end. What the book said lasted two hours was over in one, and we’d missed all but the last moments. This was our main objective for the morning, and we’d inadvertently traded it for the human tower and an infrastructure glitch.
Something shocked us. A man had set up a begging bowl on a blanket. He had his shirt pulled aside to display the hump on his back. Genuine kyphosis. Here we had a cathedral with a hunchback for a mascot. Hadn't anyone from the church noticed him? Surely he was on disability? I realized that both of these things were likely, and that he was making the most of his no doubt painful condition. I didn’t begrudge him his position, but it made me sad, and I hoped he had joy in his life.
Meanwhile, he would probably have preferred some money to my privilege-gazing.
We set off through a different part of La Rambla, which is really an enchanting place. The goal was to reach the Parc de la Ciutadella. We saw on the map that there was a chain of smaller parks leading from there in the direction of La Sagrada Familia. It was now about 2:00, and we figured we’d stop for lunch first. The closest place that fit our requirements turned out to be down a veritable maze of narrow, dreamlike alleys. Ordering our lunch there was one of my first real experiences with speaking Spanish. I fumbled and missed half of the dialogue – fortunately the waitress was fluent in English and humored me – but I was proud that I understood “integral o blanco?”
Lunch had put us in an expansive mood, and we walked out to a beautifully sunny afternoon. We reached the park. What an absolutely stunning place! Central Park has nothing on the Ciutadella park. It was full of people having fun in every way imaginable. People lounging on picnic blankets, blowing bubbles, roller blading, rowing boats, having birthday parties, playing music. We walked around the perimeter, and then my heart exploded. We had been hearing these wild parrots around town, but I hadn’t gotten a close enough look. They were Quakers! I had a succession of these birds over the years, and I have a soft spot for them. As we got closer, we found that there were dozens of birds with numbered tags around their necks. That surprised me quite a bit. They seemed cheerful enough. They were scampering around on the ground and collecting nesting material. I had read that Quakers live in huge communal nests year-round, but I’d never seen them in person before. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on this information anywhere, that Barcelona has Quaker parrots (and at least six other species of parrot as well). It was a real bright spot in my day; I wanted to plunk down and coax one into my lap. But they are bitey little buggers and I know better, so we kept walking.
The park got more unbelievably charming as we went on. Why would anyone ever go anywhere but here? It made me want to pack up and relocate to Barcelona immediately.
As we left the Ciutadella, we found that the other parks on the map were not on the same scale. Most were paved, barely wide spaces in the road. What we were seeing was more like a glorified bike path. A nice one, don’t get me wrong, and it would be hard to expect that kind of extravagance to extend for miles. We started to feel the miles. Then the park area ended and we were on ordinary city streets. We saw that La Rambla is a very special, extremely old part of Barcelona, and that the rest of the city is more modern and practical. Translation: not as scenic. This does help to bring perspective and a more well-rounded perception of a city, and it also leads to more reliance on the guidebook, as we realize that these guys know whereof they speak.
We reached La Sagrada Familia, a famous Gaudi building that remains incomplete to this day. The front and back are done in completely different styles. If you stare straight up at it, it appears to be endlessly falling toward you. It’s spooky and kind of atrocious. I found myself spilling forth forgotten Biblical lore, as I was able to explain Catholic iconography that was unfamiliar to my man. It never occurred to me, while I was absorbing all of that in my youth, that it would be useful as reference material.
We went across the street to an information booth and booked a tour for the next day, our last. I had three options in mind, and two of them… only ran on the other six days of the week. Guess we’re going to Montserrat then!
We took the Metro back downtown, an exercise in WHY U NO RESTROOMS? The Barcelona Metro has to be the only place in all of Spain that doesn’t have continually mopped, gleaming floors. It’s also the only place we went where people were not polite and cheerful. A man in a suit completely shoulder-checked me, then froze in place, not acknowledging me in any way, before walking off. It was one of those moments that could have really sealed my impression of the city, if I hadn’t stayed long enough to know it was anomalous. Spaniards are deeply warm and generous people. Maybe he had a headache, I dunno. Maybe he wasn’t Spanish.
When we got downtown, almost everything was closed. Sunday evening is not a rollicking time to be in Barcelona. We had planned on the street festival, which was supposed to run until 21:30. The location didn’t come up on any of our map apps. We found a small grocery store that was still open and picked out things for the next three meals. Then I took the plunge into the ultimate test of my language skills. I asked the clerk if he knew the address. He said no, and called over a young woman to look at the map, but she didn’t know either. Then a customer, who seemed to have had several beers already that day, asked to take a look. He said he knew it and gave me directions. We thanked him heartily and set off. The address was indeed where he said it was; the sign matched, at any rate. Disappointingly, nothing was going on there, and we triple checked the date and time. Impressively, I had totally, totally succeeded at asking for, receiving, and understanding directions in Spanish, even though I have, shall we say, below-average navigational skills. So that was the second of our plans for the day, although the unplanned day we had instead was a pretty darn good trade.
We went back to camp, ate dinner, and stayed up late washing our clothes. We didn’t have much choice in the matter, but we were getting up at 6 AM to make our tour.
Our first full day in Spain! We wake up to a comparatively sunny morning, only maybe a hundred yards from the Mediterranean. There’s a fence in the way, but you can totally see the ocean from our campsite if you stand in the right spot. The jet lag problem is over and all is well. We’ve been here fewer than 24 hours, and we already know our way around. We have a place to sleep, we have groceries and stove fuel, we know where the bus stops are, we’ve been on the most pertinent routes, we can find the store and the Starbucks, and we have wi-fi and power. This makes a big difference in our confidence and comfort. The only things we have to do today are to eat lunch and choose some interesting activities.
Getting ready for the day at a camping is a bit high maintenance. We have to gather up everything we need to shower and change clothes and carry it back and forth across camp. We have to figure out how to dry our towels. After we eat breakfast, we have to wash our dishes and pack them away again. I’m not kidding when I say that you can add a mile to your day in camp just by going back and forth to the restroom and doing basic chores. There’s about a half mile a day involved in going back and forth to the bus stop, also. It’s all part of the trip. We’re learning about how French and Spanish people vacation, feeling the climate, spotting new birds, noticing different/foreign design elements, trying to read signs, hearing various languages, watching how kids interact with each other and their parents, and on and on. For instance, probably ¾ of the dogs we will see during our trip are off-leash, but they are preternaturally well behaved. It defies credulity. There should definitely be a TV show called “Train Your Dog the Spanish Way.”
We’re still on the “wing-it method” and we have to come up with a plan for how to spend our day. This is another idea based on our trip to Iceland. We had three weeks there, and most of our stops were very small towns by California standards, so there was always plenty of time to see every single thing on our wish list. Spain cannot be “done” in one trip. Spain is so full of awesome stuff that it makes me hyperventilate a little. I had gone on a planning extravaganza, marking dozens of places on my Pinboard, skimming every guidebook in the public library published this century, and marking favorites on TripAdvisor. This is a guaranteed recipe for FoMO. If you lived in Spain for a year and spent all your spare time visiting museums and historic sites, you still couldn’t see everything worth seeing. In retrospect, it might have worked out better if we had each picked one must-see for each city.
We decided to walk around La Rambla because of its high rating in the guidebook. Hands down, La Rambla is one of the coolest places in the world. Everything we see is worth a photo, and as a consequence, I don’t really take any. I had read the advice to avoid taking “postcard shots,” because there’s no way an amateur with an ordinary camera will be able to take that kind of perfect shot. I focus on odd corners that stand out to me. We venture into a bookstore, looking for a birding guide, something I never manage to find during the trip. I find a cookbook I really want, and realize that my Spanish is good enough to get me through most of the recipes without help. Then I picture how beat up it will be after two weeks in my pack, and I pass.
We eat lunch at a natural foods restaurant that would fit right in where we live in SoCal. Spain is very much on the cutting edge when it comes to allergen labeling, dairy alternatives, and especially gluten-free baked goods. We both eat wheat all the time, but we notice. What we’re experiencing is the opposite of the picture all the guidebooks have given, which is that Spaniards eat nothing but jamon, sausage, and steak. Special diets can be a real area of concern for so many of us who would love to travel more, but have no way of knowing what we would eat. It looks as though the hospitality industry is alert to this and starting to make serious accommodations.
After lunch, we “ramble” around some more and make our way down to the water. There’s a huge monument to Christopher Columbus. We head toward the maritime museum, but never make it inside, because there happens to be a replica 18th century Russian frigate docked there. We pay about $5 for the pair of us to board and take a tour. This is one of those moments when the bucket for the bucket list has to get supersized. It turns out that this ship – and others like it around the world – goes out a few times a year for sailing adventures. My husband is well-versed in the history of the Napoleonic Era, particularly naval battles, so I quiz him a bit about life on a frigate. When he tells me how many men would sail on a ship this size, I freak out. Where did they sleep?? The more we travel and visit historic homes, ships, fortresses, etc, the more I am impressed with how little personal space people seemed to expect.
Next, we walk up the waterfront to a park. We’re planning to get up to Montjuïc. It turns out there is a funicular cable car involved. Man, I hate those things! It will be such a blip on the trip overall, just a few minutes out of two weeks, but for me it’s a real test of physical courage. I want to jump out and run screaming down the hill. Not only does it sway quite a bit, but a fiendish whistling wind blows through and I start swearing. Then I spot an interesting bird and get distracted. Is that… a magpie? They’re everywhere. I’ve never seen a magpie in nature before. There are no crows in Europe (!!!), so it’s always interesting to spot any other kind of corvid. We’re going to an historic site that has been in continuous use for over a thousand years, and all I can think about are birds.
This is why we can’t quit museums. We’ve chosen this particular site because it’s at a high elevation and it seems like one of the more famous parts of the city. The first thing we notice is that the ticket taker is a polyglot. I ask her, and she speaks four languages. Four languages in the US probably qualifies you to be an ambassador. In Europe, speaking four languages is probably equally as common as speaking only one. The next thing we notice is that Montjuïc is obviously a highly proficient fortress. Hundreds of people could survive a zombie attack here. It’s only when we start wandering through the displays and reading the placards that we find out its history is much more complex. It has been a prison and a place of execution. It started as a lighthouse, and was continuously expanded and rebuilt, showing in various incarnations in period drawings and illustrations over the centuries. In the beginning, as early as the 10th century, it was a Jewish cemetery. What we’ll see over and over in Spanish museums is evidence of the overlapping of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim culture, and a frank admission that non-Christians were expelled in 1492. It is humbling to be an American and to know that nothing in our entire nation even remotely approaches the age of so many of the places we visit in Europe. It is also a solemn experience to read over disquieting events from the past that involve only other nations and cultures. We can read about a battle or other event, not have any vested interest in either side, and take it in as sad or unnecessary. We can imagine having written history that dates back to antiquity, as well as corroborating physical culture, and acknowledging that this history includes atrocities as well as triumphs. It’s humbling. It also seems difficult for Americans to do, perhaps because we’re still such a young country.
We always know it’s about time to wrap up the day because the temperature starts to drop and the wind kicks up. We spend almost all our time outdoors when we travel, and it tends to induce an early-bird schedule. We decide to walk downhill through the park and head for the Magic Fountain. It’s a succession of lovely smaller parks, fountains, and topiary. We notice dozens of people sitting on the steps outside of a closed museum, and we figure there must be something going on. This is a moment of serendipity, even more so than discovering the replica frigate earlier. About a minute after we sit down, a troupe of young male gymnasts puts on a breakdancing performance. They’re all in matching tracksuits, and it’s plausible that they compete. They pass the hat, we throw in a euro, and I say, “You guys were awesome.” The young dancer brightens and seems about three times as flattered by this as I would have expected. I’m still trying to think of a compliment that would make an American react this way.
As we head down the hill toward the fountain, we notice that some very big crowds are gathering. There is a little food booth, and I glance at the menu to see if maybe we should get a snack. Chips, popcorn, nachos, soda, champagne, rum, vodka… I’m tickled by the idea of nachos and champagne side by side.
Watching the Magic Fountain is an exercise in modernity. The fountain itself is very impressive, far beyond anything we’ve seen in Las Vegas, and the show is worth getting sprayed a little. The modern part is that about half the crowd are holding up their cameras, phones, and selfie sticks, mostly trying to take video. I can guarantee that none of the videos will be worth watching. There’s no way that a wobbly, blurry video with tinny sound is going to impress anyone at home. It’s a light show, so no photo is going to give the effect of the dozens of colors either. All that’s happening is that everyone who holds up a camera blocks the view of everyone in the back. I wait until a relatively camera-free moment to take a shot, and only realize later that the picture worth taking was the one with the hundred lighted rectangles. How do we know we experienced anything until we’ve seen how we looked while we were there??
We head home and my husband appears to magically summon a bus on command. I’m concerned as we head back to camp; we’ve left all our stuff unattended for over 12 hours. It isn’t so much that we were worried about thieves as about curious children. I have a spooked moment when we walk up and see one of our chairs is tipped over, but it turns out to have been the wind. Everything is fine. We still have a perfect 100% record of safety in Europe, and nobody has ever seemed remotely interested in our gear. I hear differently about hostels, probably because they include travelers from all over the world, while campings are full of local families and people who come to the same spots year after year.
We eat a late dinner and go to bed. We have walked just over 11 miles and seen everything we could see in a day.
This is a book about a quest – an epic, all-consuming quest. Phoebe Snetsinger liked birdwatching, and had the resources to support a lot of travel to do it. Then she got a cancer diagnosis and was told she had three months to live.
It’s a common conversational topic. “What would you do if you knew you only had X amount of time to live?” In a sense, there’s a kind of cosmic permission granted by receiving a death sentence in this manner. All the shackles of convention are loosened. We’re finally free to say what we want to say, do what we want to do, and go where we want to go. Personally, I don’t see why we can’t grant ourselves this permission any old time we like, because we know neither the day nor the hour. As it turns out, Snetsinger’s day came 18 years after her initial diagnosis; she was killed instantly in a bus accident [“bus” in the book; “van” in Wikipedia]. (Medical ethics have changed, too, and doctors don’t usually hand out exact time limitations any more).
Birding on Borrowed Time is really all about birding. It barely mentions Snetsinger’s four children, or her husband, except to point out how her travels caused her to miss her daughter’s wedding and nearly led to divorce. Similarly, she spends about the same amount of ink on her terrifying gang rape as on the time she broke her wrist. The picture that emerges is of a person who will be stopped by nothing. Facing mortality seems to bring about some sea changes in perspective. In her own words: “There were indeed human hazards in this country – but not to go there at all because of the possibility of encountering them? Unthinkable! It has become ever more clear to me that if I had spent my life avoiding any and all potential risks, I would have missed doing most of the things that have comprised the best years of my life.”
Phoebe Snetsinger set a world record for living bird sightings. By her calculations, she saw roughly 84% of all the birds in the world.
This is interesting to me on three levels. For one, I was riveted by the mechanics of birding: her record keeping, the basics of amateur ornithology, the travel planning, the dynamics of private and group trips, the equipment. One of my earliest memories is of a panicked female sparrow that flew into our house and finally allowed my dad to pick her up. I love watching even the most common domestic birds; if I saw some of the exotic birds that Phoebe Snetsinger saw, I might actually vibrate into a different plane of existence.
The second thing that interests me about this book is the interpersonal aspects of what happens when a woman starts to live like a man. When a man is driven, ambitious, single-minded, dedicated, or otherwise somewhat obsessive about a quest, nobody so much as blinks. He goes where he wants, does what he wants, and says what he wants. If he is away from home a lot or misses some weddings, well, that’s the price of excellence. When a woman does it? Say she does what she wants and she sets a world record. Is she judged differently, by society, by her husband or children? Should she be?
The third thing that interests me about this book is that most of its events happen after the author had passed the age of 50. She climbs mountains and rides horseback; she removes leeches and goes out in the wind, rain, and mud. She risks political coups and armed robbery and earthquakes and avalanches. She even climbs over a razor-wire fence. She sprains muscles and breaks bones. She’s 68 when she dies, binoculars in hand. It doesn’t say, but she may actually have “died with her boots on.” This is a fascinating picture of post-menopausal adventure, one that has rarely been seen, but may become more common in future as trailblazers like Phoebe Snetsinger venture forth.
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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