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Into the Wild: The Miraculous Norway Adventure

IMG_9854

It was sometime between when I filled my camelpack with glacier melt and started a fire with my own hands that I realized Norway might be my favorite country so far. This might come as a surprise since my last two entries have been a little on the down side, but that is only a glimpse of moments. The overall story is incredible and I would be surprised if it got better than this…

We arrived in Oslo courtesy of two Macedonian gentlemen. From there we made our way to our first host’s apartment, getting over the initial shock of how expensive food is in this country. When I say “expensive” I don’t just mean “SF-rent expensive” I mean “one-Corona-costs-$11-American-dollars-expensive.” Yeah. Our budget of 55 crowns per day per person is the equivalent of two bottles of Coca Cola here. This would be a huge inconvenience if Norwegian people weren’t so amazing and friendly and generous.Our time in Oslo was good. We stayed with two different couples, had good meals, drank beer, went running, and visited the two points of interest: the famous ski jump and the sculpture garden. 

But Oslo is just a snapshot of Norway. We were interested in the wilderness, and boy did we get thrown into it abruptly.

Friday night, we went out to a lesbian bar with our second hosts Arnaldo and Mia who turned out to be a lovely, beautiful couple. We went out, drank, came back, drank some more, shenanigans, debauchery etc. etc. This was our first party night since we left Dublin 7 months ago. It was long overdue, and we made the most of it. We stumbled home in ambient twilight, it was nearly 2am. But we didn’t get to sleep until about 5. Of course it’s Norway, so the sun was shining brightly by then, but we still decided to try and sleep it off anyway.

I was ready for sleep, and feeling fine albeit tired. Sadly, the same cannot be said for all parties involved. It started as low whispers from the bedroom, and then became increasingly louder and more intense. Our hosts were fighting. Their common language is English so we could easily understand everything. Unfortunately, it was getting serious and got to the point where we just decided to bail. We packed our things and were out the door. We are reasonable people and left out of courtesy more than anything. It sounded like the last thing they needed to worry about was coushsurfers when their relationship was potentially ending. 

I didn’t even have my hiking boots on all the way as I bounded downstairs. We realized at the doorway to their building that we left our running shoes on their balcony (which is connected to their bedroom). But there was no going back. Sleep deprived, we hauled our packs to our first host’s apartment to see if by chance they were home.

Success! They were! But…they were leaving in 30 minutes to go on vacation. Maria and I pulled ourselves up from the couch and got our things together a second time. It was not a nice feeling.

They were kind enough to drop us on the road outside of Oslo to save us a walk across town. We still had not slept so we bushwhacked into some forest just beyond the guard rail. It turned out to be infested with mosquitoes, huge, aggressive ones, thirsty for blood.  But we were too tired to care. We threw our tent down and passed out for a few hours. When we woke up we shoveled some bread and oil into our mouths and hit the road.

The first lift took about 8  minutes, and it ended up being the only lift we needed. We were picked up by a HUGE Norwegian guy named John. But after a few moments in his car, we realized he was very gentle and kind and probably also a little lonely. He was eager to show us EVERYTHING along the route to his cabin in Rjuken. Eventually, he said if we wanted, we could pitch our tent in his garden. This eventually turned into a full-on invite into his house. As we stood outside the supermarket, planning that night’s meal, it started to rain and we gladly accepted the offer to sleep indoors.

and to this mountain

he took us to this old train
and this old train

His house was messy and a work-in-progress, but huge. And it was nestled in between two mountains surrounded by wilderness. It was idyllic and exactly what you would expect from a mountain cabin in Norway. We made dinner, had ice cream, and slept off the past 48 hours.

view from our attic room
view from our attic room
our bunk
our bunk
the living room. Reindeer pelts and all.
the living room. Reindeer pelts and all.

The next morning, we had breakfast and he showed us some of his outdoors gear. He quickly assessed that we were into camping and hiking, and actually gifted us each TWO pairs of WOOL SOCKS EACH.

behold: tent socks
behold: tent socks

We were thinking it doesn’t get much better than that. This had to be the best lift ever. Later that day we said goodbye to John. He dropped us on a lonely stretch of road. The only one leading out of town. After a long while we finally managed a lift. It was slow going, and we ended up stuck at a gas station for quite some time. That is, until a kind woman driving a Prius pulled over for us.

I sat in front this time, and turned on the charm. After about 20 minutes, she suggested that we sleep in her guest room instead of sleeping outside. We accepted, and once again, had a roof over our heads that wasn’t made of nylon.

Her husband is from Wisconsin, so we actually had some nice conversations about America as they stuffed us with tea and homemade bread and jam. Oh, they also lived in a mountain paradise and had an awesome cat.

OMG
OMG
Blacky
Blacky

The next morning, we were fed the best breakfast ever consisting of coffee and oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts. I haven’t been this excited about breakfast since I lived in SF. And to think, she actually apologized about only having oatmeal to offer.

perfection
perfection

So off we were to Odda, in an attempt to climb to Trolltongue. Our host drove us to a good waiting spot, and though it took a while to get a lift, we eventually got one that took us directly to Odda. Once there, we got a lift directly to our trailhead with some Belgian hippies. It was the day of door-to-door service.

We began hiking at noon and slept in the mountains that night. The following day, I woke up with a sore throat which was lame, but it didn’t hold me back too much. It was a slow day getting out of the trail spot, but by the end of that day, we found ourselves with yet another hike under our belts (and a glacier) and we were in the best camping spot of my entire life. To top it off, I started a fire with my bare hands.

I AM GOD
I AM GOD

We were flying. Life was adventurous and easy. That is, until it began to rain that afternoon.

Our next destination was another glacier, but hitch-hiking in the rain is not ideal. As you know from ALL of my previous posts, I am thrown into a sea of despair when it rains and I am outside with no end in sight. However, I managed to keep it together for a little while. We didn’t wait long before a man pulled up in a BMW. He drove us all the way to the ferry and even pair our ticket for us. After that, we caught a lift to Voss where we spent some time in the tourist information center before setting out into the local wilderness to camp.

It was rainy, but we had the tent and there was a grocery store close by. The following morning was miraculously dry, and we packed up in high spirits. Unfortunately, it would take us about 3 hours to leave this tiny town.

PLEASE!
PLEASE!

We spent 45 minutes getting rejected by car after car after car. Amazingly, Maria was the one who took the first cry break. Indeed, this was the first time while hitch-hiking in Norway that we would wait more than 10 minutes for a ride. It was agony. I was actually waiting for the sting of despair to overtake me, but strangely it never came. This is when I had my moment of clarity that sometimes things are hard for no reason, just keep on keepin’ on and eventually you’ll be out of it.

I also had a strange 6th sense feeling that whatever lift did get us out of this mess would be a good one. I was not disappointed.

holy s**t
holy s**t

Pavel is from Slovakia and he was driving to Flom to pick up a few friends. He kindly picked us up and opted for the scenic route instead of the tunnel.

“Flom is famous for beer brewing. You must try a beer when you get there.”

We communicated subtly something to the effect of “like we have the money for microbrews in Norway.”

“Since you decided to go to Flom, I will buy you each a beer.”

Wow. Thanks Pavel! You just spent $40 on complete strangers and were late picking up your friends to stop on the side of the road so we could take pictures. Is there something in the water here?

It was the best beer we had since Belgium. Truly. And our good fortune didn’t stop there.

As we drunkenly hitch-hiked toward our next glacier, we were picked up by an awesome Polish woman who worked on a cruise ship. She took us through the longest tunnel in the world and dropped us right on the ferry line.

the longest tunnel
the longest tunnel

And we hitch-hiked right across the ferry into this:

A tunnel that we can't walk through.
A tunnel that we can’t walk through.

It was nice that the weather was good and we were able to laugh at this situation. The ferry worker who was apparently 16 (he looked not a day over 12) laughed at our predicament with us. He eventually called his coworker and asked if he would give us a lift to the other side.

He did and we had a nice dinner in a rest stop before we were picked up by another Norwegian guy who decided after we were in his car that he would drive us an hour out of his way to drop us off where we needed to be to hike to the glacier.

we set up camp in another mosquito forest
we set up camp in another mosquito forest

and called it a night.

Our trip to the glacier was a success except that it began to rain while we were there. We left our tent in the Mosquito Forest and returned to a sopping wet domicile. I begrudgingly ate a peanut butter sandwich inside, dreading the inevitable of packing the tent away wet. This was the beginning of the end for me. We stood in the rain for almost an hour trying to get out of that spot, and when we were dropped in the next town, I had another low moment.

I noticed the no camping sign where we were standing, and the dangerously curved road with no shoulder to speak of. It poured. We were doomed. We couldn’t camp anywhere, or walk anywhere except for backwards. This was hopeless. We were wet and sad looking. I looked down at my shoes and actually tried to cheer myself up with thoughts of being chained to a desk as an alternative to this. It didn’t work.

A semi-truck rushed by me and sprayed me with water and I just sobbed. I covered my face with my hands and accepted the fact that I was at the 11th hour yet again.

And then Kai stopped for us. In less than 10 minutes from my breakdown I found myself here:

petting a kitty
petting a kitty

And drinking tea and eating crackers. Kai had seen me crying and decided to pull over. This was the first time my despair was actually acknowledged by a driver. He invited us to camp in his garden, but as usual, it quickly evolved into an offer of a shower and a guest room….and tacos.

mmm taco Friday in Norway
mmm taco Friday in Norway

We had extremely stimulating conversation with Kai the entire night. He was actually running a foot race up a mountain the following day, and offered to drive us an additional 100 kilometers over a mountain pass. Obviously we took this offer too. I think he was a bit surprised by us. He confessed he was not expecting questions about Norwegian economics or about the ethics of the textile industry in other countries. He was expecting more like “where is the McDonalds?”

He was surprised, but pleased, and we enjoyed the opportunity to defy some American/hitch-hiker stereotypes.

The next morning he dropped us off and this was the day of Ask and You Shall Receive. There was rain. Lots of it. I was not happy.

fml
fml

This is not where I like to be, usually. I tried all of my usual mental exercises to get myself through it, but it was quite unsuccessful. Instead I started to focus on simple things that would improve my situation. The gas station attendant came by to chat with us. The thought crossed my mind (and Maria’s) that a coffee would be great.

I went into the station to make a peanut butter sandwich and out of nowhere the gas station attendant says “Would you like a coffee?”

“Yes, but I have no money, unfortunately.”

“No problem.”

And then bam. Two free coffees. AND just as I handed Maria her cup, a car pulled over for us. The bad news about this day is that there was the annual summer solstice Trondheim to Oslo bike race taking up all of the road and making every passing car super angry. We resolved to the fact that we would likely die there at the gas station. Worst of all, I really wanted ice cream.

I walked up to the first woman I saw on the sidewalk and tried to sweet-talk my way into her car. She wasn’t interested in driving us anywhere, but after a full hour of conversation and several tips about what to see and do in SF (when she and her family visit next week) she offered to buy Maria and me ice cream.

NO WAY!
NO WAY!

Yes way. This stuff really does happen to us. But wait, it gets better…

So we eat our ice cream and no one stops for us for a long time, and then finally a car sneaks into the gas station and calls us over. It is a nice-looking Norwegian guy who invites us to ride along with him to the next town. We find out while we’re in his car that he was running the same foot race with Kai earlier that day and he overheard Kai talking about us.

I think that was the first time our reputation preceded us. He mentioned that Kai said it was a very good experience and this was followed by an invite to put our tent in his garden as well. Score. It was raining. Life is good.

We ended up crashing their summer solstice barbecue. We arrived to a house full of kids playing and his lovely wife who stuffed us full of food as soon as we put our foot in the door. We stayed up past midnight talking and sharing stories. Basically, it was good old fashioned family fun for us.

barbecue!
barbecue!

If you can imagine, it gets even better than this. Not only did we get to sleep in a bed, indoors, but the next morning our hosts offered us each a wool buff for free. Apparently they were given as gifts but their kids don’t like them because they are “itchy.” I was both amazed and thankful at how stupid children can be and graciously accepted this gift of wool. Again.

And again it was raining. Our host left us, feeling somewhat guilty at a terrible place to wait, but it was no problem. I quickly spotted a hippy van driven by two Dutch kids and in no time we were headed back to Oslo in a 1973 VW bus. It was green and had flowers and everything. They informed us they had seen us the previous day during the bike race and wanted to stop for us but were too late to pull over. We are famous now. 

It took some time, but I’m sure you can see why Norway is my favorite country. Okay sure, it is really expensive and it rains a lot, but it is also the land of free coffee and ice cream and people are kind and gift you wool. I am leaving this place with some of the best memories of all of my travels. Okay yeah, sometimes I get bent out of shape about the weather and occasionally Maria and I have deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of it all, but this is what traveling is like. 

It is full of ups and downs and the best lesson I have learned in my time in Norway is ask and you shall receive. A positive outlook is usually followed by a positive outcome. 

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This is Morocco Part 2: “How many camels, please?”

This might be more of a rant than anything else, but I can’t help it.  Again, I’ve had a great time here in Morocco, but I could never live here. In the past 25 days I have come to a better understanding of Arab culture, and you know what? It’s not for me. This is not an opinion on Islam. Islam has nothing to do with this. This is about the culture, and while there are aspects of it that I truly appreciate, the negative ones still tip the scale unfavorably, for me. 

We stayed with five hosts while in Morocco. Four of them were men and all four of them were great. Different, but all positive experiences. When we finally made it to Fes, we had the opportunity to stay with a girl. And she turned out to be the least Moroccan, Moroccan girl you can imagine. 

Aida, is 26 and works for P&G. She manages a team of 45 men, and all of her clients are men. She has her own apartment in Fes and is unmarried (although she has a boyfriend). Aida has a degree in mechanical engineering and is more of less glued to her blackberry. She could have come straight out of Los Angeles. 

Aida represents less than 1% of Moroccan women, but she was able to give me some insight into what it is like to grow up as a woman in this country. She grew up with the attention, the cat calling and she is able to ignore it. It is innocuous to her, but for Maria and me, it is still a bit distracting. 

“Not a lot of men work.” she explained.

but they do a lot of this
but they do a lot of this
and this
and this

You can find men, always, hanging out at cafes. Passing by any given cafe, the tables outside are likely to be packed with men sitting either alone or with friends, smoking and drinking coffee. Meanwhile, women walk along the streets doing things. They shop, they buy groceries, they study, they go to work, they go home, they wait for buses. But they are always doing something.

I have never seen so many men in my entire life, all in one place, doing exactly fuck-all. 

Unless you count staring, hissing, or shouting at girls who pass by. Yeah, not exactly my idea of a good time. It is some unwritten law that if a Moroccan guy makes eye-contact with you, he is overcome by a compulsion to say something, usually at your back, to get your attention.

Boys will stop their motorbikes, follow us. I’ve had any number of things shouted at me from passing cars, guys on the street, rude gestures. I just, can’t handle it emotionally. For Maria it is easier because she has dealt with this attention from men for longer but it is very new to me and I don’t like it. 
Obviously, this does happen in the US, but not nearly as frequently. I managed to live my entire life in America and never had this happen to me. But moving on…
One night, we were sitting with our host in Merzouga waiting for the bus. This boy came up to us on his motorbike and introduced himself. Then he asked if we wanted a beer and to perhaps go to the dunes nearby.
He must have asked Maria and me 10 times if we wanted to go out to the sand dunes with him and “relax.” Politely refusing once is already awkward enough, especially in a country where it is rude to refuse something that is offered to you. But we managed to divert the conversation to the behavior of Moroccan men toward us.
“You see,” he began “When a man tells you you are very pretty, it is because you are. You should just smile and say ‘thank you.”
Yeah that sounds great, except I just don’t buy that a man would shout something like “hey pretty lady” from his motorbike just to make me feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good. It makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. WTF am I supposed to do after you speed by me? Run after you? Wave my arms and call you back and talk to you more?
If you truly want to pay a woman a compliment, there was probably better ways of going about this. I’ve had men say “Hello” to me and smile and felt fine. “Welcome to Morocco.” is also another one I don’t mind. “Bonjour, Madame.” is also acceptable, along with many other innocent greetings. But there something about “Que es bonita” and then following me down the street asking where I’m going and if I need help creeps me the hell out. 
But how many times do I have to say “no thank you” before they leave you alone? Answer: at least 10. Why are the first 5 times not good enough? Furthermore, I have to supply justification for why I do not want to go to the sand dunes with this young man. The problem is that they have to be reasons he understands. Finally, I have to resort to something explicit like “Please go away.” and then I am accused of being disrespectful.
The point is, I miss being able to walk down the street without having to have a 5 minute unwanted conversation with every person I pass. I miss just walking to get vegetables and saying ” Hi” a few times, getting a “Hi” back, and just moving on. Trust me, after nearly a month of this, it begins to wear you down. 
We actually stayed with another American girl here in the city and she confirmed all of the same feelings. It was nice to have somebody understand without having to go into explaining where you’re coming from beforehand. But it didn’t exactly stop the behavior.
“You can’t change the culture.” she explained. As a Peace Corps volunteer, she was here for a longer haul than we were, and already a year into her service.
“Yeah, it definitely wears you down. Sometimes you have good days, sometimes you have bad days, and sometimes you have really really bad days.”
Well, I finally experienced one of those really bad days. We walked by ourselves to the Medina and we received the usual treatment along the way. Inside the Medina it is a bit different. Vendors will try to pull you into their shops, but they do this to everyone. It’s still a bit annoying, but in a different way and one which doesn’t make me angry at them. I just politely say “no thank you” and walk away.
But I was on edge. So much so that one vendor said something to me as we passed him. I heard “nice ass.” and in perfect sync, Maria and I turned around and stormed over to him. Before we could say anything he threw his hands up in defense and pointed to his face.
“Nice eyes! Nice eyes!” He seemed scared. This made me feel better. 
But the breaking point was still to come, and it would happen just as we left the Medina. We passed by two loitering men in the parking lot. I saw out of the corner of my eye that they were following. Maria was a few steps ahead but I was close enough to hear.
“Hey, how many camels? Please, how many camels?”
I stopped and turned. I took off my sunglasses and stared him right in the face.
“Is this how you make friends?” Maria had noticed and came to join me. The man also walked over, smiling confidently.
“I am sorry. My English is not so good.”
“Oh so, you just shout things to us in English but you don’t understand it? Do you even know what I’m saying?” Maria asked.
He smiled and said again “My English…”
I took this as an opportunity to talk at him. I didn’t really give a damn whether or not he understood me. I just wanted to express my frustration to him, specifically and have him hear my tone. 
“Actually, you can help me. May I have some money?” I said. He looked at me, surprised, but he immediately reached into his fanny pack and showed me some change.
“You know, for the offense. I think 5 Dirham will do.”
“Oh no, 5 is too much.” He said, still kind of laughing.
“Do you even have a job? Or you just stand around like every other Moroccan guy doing fucking nothing all day?
“Yes, I have a job.”
“Do you have a wife?”
“No…”
“I can understand why.”
And then I left. Did it really solve anything? No. Did it change his mentality? Not at all. But I felt damn good. I felt like I just had a warm shower. I felt refreshed. I just needed for once to not be passive. After so much time in this country, it was very apparent that the men who behave this way are not dangerous, they are just annoying and disrespectful. Instead of being passive when I encounter this, I am more likely to engage them. If it’s what they want, so be it, but at least I feel more powerful.
Obviously one can argue that not all men in Morocco are like this. Yes, that is true. But most of them are. You can disagree with me, but you’d be wrong. And even after all of my positive experiences with my hosts, the truly polite and respectful men who were gentlemen, the behavior of the general public left a lasting impression.
I’m glad I came here, and I am glad I spent so much time here, but let’s just say I am really looking forward to my plane touching down tomorrow in the Netherlands. 
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Portugal: The Paradise and the Wasteland

Please dear god anywhere but here!
Please dear god anywhere but here!

The Paradise and the Wasteland

My arrival to Portugal was a complete anomaly as far as hitch-hiking goes. This realization came to me as I found myself standing at the exit of a truck stop some 20 kilometers north of Santarem on May 1st.

I was in poor spirits. The previous day was about as bad as it can get (it can always get worse, but it usually doesn’t). Our day ended with a meal of museli, gas station bread, chocolate spread, and a bag of Fritos. Our night began at a camp site just over a barbed-wire fence behind a truck stop. (I actually slept pretty well, all things considered).

The next morning, full of the optimism that everyone gets for free at the beginning of each new day, I sat on a guard rail and surveyed the parking lot of the truck stop that contained exactly 0 cars. Meanwhile, I listened to Maria in the background throwing rocks at signs and talking to snails.

“This is where we die.” I thought.

~One Week Earlier~

Maria and I finished hiking El Camino de Santiago on April 22nd and not a moment too soon. The previous two nights I had been feeling a bit off. Nothing major, just nausea and chills at night. Fred and Jen (our Canadians) insisted that it was just because I was tired from walking so much with so much weight etc. etc. But I knew quite well that I had contracted some milder form of what Maria had a few days earlier. We share everything.

Despite feeling quite ill, I went out with our Canadians for tapas in Santiago to celebrate the end of our journey. It ended up being the best meal I had in Spain. Everything was perfect and delicious. Unfortunately, I paid the price that night because I was up out of bed every 20 minutes running to the toilet. This persisted for the next 9 hours. I got no sleep and was in agony all night. Maria slept peacefully beside me the entire time.

A side note: I do not disturb Maria when I am ill. The logic is simple: there is absolutely nothing she can do for me to alleviate my illness, and I need her refreshed and rested so that she can take care of me the following day. The system works. Trust me.

Naturally, when I got out of bed the following day I felt like death. I was in the most hippie-new-age-indie hostel I have ever seen. It was peaceful, quiet, clean, and smelled of incense. The conditions for illness could have been worse (things can always be worse, you all know that now).

“What do you want to do?” Maria asked me in the morning

“Just get me out of Spain.”

And that is what we did. We had a host waiting for us in Porto and I was eager to reach him. No more albergues, no more bread and Nutella. Sick or not, I have a schedule to keep. But it was no use against the utter death-march the universe had planned for us that morning.

Our day turned into two hours of aimless trudging through the city after a bad starting spot. We had no fewer than 3 cry breaks before we finally found our road out. By this time it was almost 1:30 and we finally managed to get a lift right before the motorway from a young Spanish girl. She took us about 20 kilometers and when we parted she wished us luck and gave Maria an ice cream.

“Okay, things are looking up. At least we are out of Santiago.”

Unfortunately, the Laws of the Universe do not guarantee that getting out of one horrible situation grants you immunity from subsequent horrible situations. And that is more or less what happened. Again, parked against a guard rail, I crouched in the sun and waited for death. Casually I scanned my surroundings looking for viable camping. It was very likely that we would have to stay there if we did not wither away and die before nightfall.

In the exact moment that I was considering prayer, a car pulled over. It was a Portuguese man in his mid to late forties. He was going directly to Porto. It is over a 2 hour drive, (this is commonly known as a “Trail Angel”).

~The Paradise~

DSC_0051

After two lifts and one juice break at a truck stop, we were picked up by Miguel (our host) at a gas station. At the time I couldn’t even focus, but I learned later that the lush backyard was full of orange trees, lemon trees, kiwis, grapes, strawberries and countless flowers. It smelled like California, and I was happy.

I immediately asked him where I could lay down, and that is where I stayed for the next 18 hours enjoying the sound of classical guitar and the smell of bread baking.

Now Miguel. He is a 46 year-old computer science professor with a PhD in engineering. He has been playing the guitar for 30 years and is classically trained. He lives in his late grandmother’s house where he built a steam room. He knows magic tricks, and EVERYTHING about Portugal and his schedule is so light that he can afford to spend all of his time with couch surfers. In fact, while we stayed with him we also stayed with about 8 additional people.

My initial impression of Portugal was incredible. The following morning we set up breakfast outside in his garden. I ate yogurt, strawberries, Portuguese cheese, coffee, and fresh squeezed orange juice from oranges that came from the tree next to me that very morning. Afterward, we went in the steam room and I had a proper Turkish bath, ridding myself of all of the filth of the Camino. After that, Miguel drove us to the beach and we had beers practically on the sand. I was not even sure this was real life anymore. I considered for a moment that I had died in Spain and this was my heaven.

I only had to wait 5 months for tank top weather
I only had to wait 5 months for tank top weather

Miguel insisted that we have some truly authentic Portuguese food and so we went to a very special hole-in-the-wall that we would have never found otherwise. There, everyone else feasted on grilled sardines, squid, garlic potatoes, huge salads and olives. I of course, just getting back into the habit of eating, sampled as much as I could.

DSC_0046

The fun did not end there. The Korean girls went off to Porto and the newcomers, a Belgian carnie and his French girlfriend accompanied us on a “hike” to some waterfalls. This turned out to mean free-climbing bushwhack through the mountains to not-so-secret waterfalls. According to Miguel, the Portuguese are too lazy to climb down to the pools and the tourists don’t know about them. So after some near-death climbing, we found ourselves (all 5 of us) swimming naked in a pool beneath a 30 meter waterfall in Portugal. It was truly an adventure and I somehow made it back alive.

near-death: my favorite place.
near-death: my favorite place.

The adrenaline rush left us all feeling like more adventure. Miguel called up his friend who happens to own a vineyard paradise nearby. We drove there and enjoyed bottle after bottle of free Vino Verde and enjoyed a complete authentic Portuguese meal. Just me, Maria, the Belgian carnies, and Miguel.

We ended up staying with Miguel for an entire week. I mean, we would have been crazy to leave. He took us to a vegan-anarchist bar for their 5th birthday party. There were clowns and free snacks including vegan chocolate cake. This, among countless jam sessions and breakfasts in the garden. I really could not have imagined a better host than Miguel.

Of course, he was particularly nice to us because he was quite smitten with Maria. Such is life when you travel with someone who is so attractive. But you can read more about that in HER blog.

Now, the time finally did come for us to leave Miguel’s house. We had set up a couch in Aljezur, approximately 250 kilometers away from Porto. It is not such a bad distance except that we have to navigate past Lisbon. There is no direct road south and this has the potential for problems. Maria neglected to inform me of the utter disaster hitch-hiking in Portugal really is. But it’s not a problem because I found out for myself very quickly.

~The Wasteland~

concrete island here we come!
concrete island here we come!

The first rule I have formulated for myself regarding hitch-hiking is this: NEVER start hitch-hiking out of a city without doing your own research first. The supplementary caveat to this rule is to never trust someone’s idea of a “good spot” if they never hitch-hike themselves.

We were dropped in a terrible place at 11am. Much too late to begin such a long day. After spending 45 minutes effectively waving at strangers passing by, we decided to leave. This required walking to the opposite side of the city, adding easily two hours to our journey. Fuck.

Maria had her first real breakdown of our travel. Why did we not consult hitch-wiki before trying to get out of Porto? Eventually we found the road and walked down and down and down until we hit a truck stop. From there it was still a long time before we found a lift. Hundreds of cars passed us and no one stopped.

We got a lift to the truck stop near Santarem and that is where we stayed. Thumbing for nearly 4 hours with no luck whatsoever. Many people going to Lisbon, but it was too late in the day to get stuck in a city with no camping available. And finally, the next morning, still no luck.

Some police officers stopped and asked if we were going to Lisbon. We excitedly said yes, showing them our signs which said EVERYTHING: Sul, Lisboa, Algarve, Aljezur, Faro. They spoke amongst themselves for a minute and then drove off without any further acknowledgement.

Wow.

Of course, we were rescued eventually around 9am. We practically coerced a woman into driving us near Lisbon and she was very kind, but clueless and dropped us off on the actual motorway. Now most of you don’t know this, but if you ever have the pleasure of hitch-hiking in Portugal the very kind highway patrol workers will make sure you know one thing: There is no walking on the autopista.

The next thing you will learn is that this is as far as their knowledge goes. When you are dropped onto the motorway, you are unable to walk, and yet, they are unable to drive you off. A modern paradox. And this is the situation we found ourselves in. In the end, the officer told us to walk “that way” as he gestured to the horizon into oblivion. And also told us to pretend that we had not seen him.

Oh Portugal, the land of cheap fish, beer, and uncrowded beaches. This is the same land that still very much maintains its mentality of a police state. There are so many police officers and so many random check points that everyone is afraid of getting caught with a wayward traveler carrying drugs.

“Ah, so this is where we die.” I remember remarking to myself as we walked toward the horizon.

Our strategy changed from the conventional thumbs-out-smiling approach to frantic arm-waving distress signals. The drivers smiled and waved at us.

“Fuck this.” I grabbed my bag and turned around indignant. Just at that moment, I heard Maria screaming at me.

A car had stopped. Thank God.

This guy was from Angola and I found out quickly that he brakes for all birds. Nevertheless, we were dropped safely on the national road to begin our second stint of wasteland wandering. We walked maybe 8 kilometers and were passed by hundreds of cars. Not a single one stopped. There is nothing to do at that point but laugh. And maybe borrow some oranges from a nearby farm because we were starving.

We decided to park in front of a pharmacy and watch as all traffic passed us. A toothless man across the street brought us a bag of food. That is how pathetic we looked sitting in the dust next to the road begging for salvation.

We made it to Aljezur at 5pm. Exactly 9 hours after we started hitch-hiking that morning. Jesus tap-dancing-Christ it was the longest day ever and it ended with a truly awkward situation.

~The (somewhat awkward) Paradise~

Bilal lives 3 kilometers away from here
Bilal lives 3 kilometers away from here

Have you ever couch surfed as a lesbian woman with an Arab Muslim? Oh really? Because I have.

I am a huge fan of profiling people as a traveler. I need to do it in order to keep myself safe. If some guy looks shifty, then I don’t get in his car. I am not rude, or aggressive toward anyone, but the last thing on my list of concerns is preserving the feelings of someone who might do me harm.

That being said, I also try to avoid situations that might become confrontational, such as, planning to stay in the home of someone who hates gay people. Maria and I are not “out” as a couple on our couch-surfing profiles. We are considering changing this now, but initially we decided it was a better idea to keep it quiet.

The situation was such that, we were invited into the home of Bilal. He lives directly on the beach in Aljezur and is somewhat of a fixture in the community. Originally, we were not planning to stay with him because he had negative references on his couch-surfing profile from women. They expressed discomfort with his attitude toward women and of course, we listened to this warning.

However, we were also planning to surf with a guy in Aljezur we found on BeWelcome. It didn’t occur to us until we arrived in Aljezur that it was THE SAME GUY we saw on couchsurfing. Uh oh. But, upon re-reading the negative references, we decided to give it a shot. If it was truly uncomfortable, we would just leave and go camp somewhere.

The moment I saw him I was shocked. A very large (read: rotund) man. I tried to conceal my surprise but my eyes were as wide as saucers. I extended my hand hoping for an American handshake, but he went ahead and leaned in for the European two-kiss greeting. I cannot tell you how much I hate that. First of all, it takes forever to introduce yourself to a group of people. Secondly, the only people who are really into it are men. Precisely the people who I would prefer not to rub my face against.

Anyway, he was polite enough. I was quite shocked, but not scared. There were no actual red-flags or gut feelings about him so we continued our meeting. He drove us up to his house and showed us to our own private room. Inside there were two twin beds and one double bed.

“You are a couple, right?”

Is it that obvious?

“Yeah. I hope that’s okay.”

“I thought so. I don’t care. Which one of you is the man?”

Excuse me?

“I think you are the man.” he said to me.

I’d like to call this next segment “Things Not to Say to a Lesbian”

“It’s like with dogs. For example.” he began.

What the fucking fuck.

“You can always tell… dogs they think the leader is one in front. If the dog is well-trained, he walks behind the master. Katie. She walks in front. She takes the lead.”

This is not happening.

“Of course, I can only really tell if you kiss in front of me.”

You’re joking.

Maybe one of the guys reading this can tell me why on earth anyone would think this is appropriate conversation 4 seconds after we arrived at his house.

I looked over to Maria with horror. Yet, I still somehow managed to understand that there was no antagonism in his voice. I truly think he was trying to be funny and make us feel more comfortable. (just a side note: this is the worst way to go about that, you know, just for future reference).

I for one, have a healthy sense of humor, I can handle most things. But his jokes were more like something to cringe at than to laugh at. It’s kind of like when your dad tries to be cool by saying things like “YOLO” * facepalm*

“Listen, I don’t care. You will see, I am a very liberal guy. If you are a couple, just say so. I’m not interested to see you together.”

He seemed to understand his mistake.

And then after that, no more awkward comments. In fact, he was excellent. We asked him all sorts of questions about Islam and Arab culture. We picked his brains about what we could expect in Morocco and he was extremely generous with information. He was kind, respectful, and I felt very comfortable staying with him. All of this, despite a slightly awkward start to things.

The best part for me was hearing about the previous couch surfers who left him negative references. Hearing his side of the story was very good for me. Because in that moment, I realized that Bilal spends a lot of his time trying to overcome other people’s prejudices about him.

He is a large Arab guy and he is frequently hosting couch surfers, a lot of whom happen to be young girls. Everyone in the community judges him for this (couchsurfing is hard for a lot of people to understand) and his surfers judge him because he is a large Arab guy who hosts a lot of young girls. It was good for me to get his perspective, even though we definitely disagree on many things, that is kind of the point.

When someone says “I like to travel to meet new people.” what they more often than not mean is, they like meeting new people who think exactly like they do. As I sat across from Bilal, someone who shares such a different perspective than I do, I was suddenly thankful of the opportunity to actually be able to share in someone else’s culture. It took me until that moment to realize how truly rare that was.

~Paradise Part Deux~

We were actually able to avoid the Wasteland that is hitch-hiking in Portugal because our next host only lived 45 kilometers away and offered to pick us up. This is where I begin culture shock number 2. Kurt, our 64 year-old host from Germany.

Kurt lives within walking distance from here:

DSC_0535

Kurt has worked for many years in civil engineering and project managing with American companies as well as European companies. He is wicked smart and very open minded. The only thing is that he talks constantly and is a bit deaf so for the past 4 days we have hardly had a chance to get a word in edgewise.

I’m not kidding. In 4 days, I have maybe managed to get 6 sentences across to him. He also has this hilarious habit of citing the year as “nineteen hundred and seventy-six” and it cracks me up every time. Some of his little nuggets of wisdom are hilarious. For example…

“When you are tired…sleep.” and “If you never take the first step, then you never arrive.”

But other points he has driven home have a little more depth…

“Accept what you did in the past. If you do not like it, then do not do it again. If you do like it, then do it again.”

And these types of things go on and on all day. Still, despite the extremely one-sided conversation, he somehow achieved the impression that Maria and I are very intelligent and worth having around.

“It took me 57 years to find Algarve, and here you are! so young! Please, I invite you to stay as long as you like. You have the key. Just take it. All is easy for me.”

He added that we are intelligent and disciplined. Coming from a German guy I take this as a compliment in the highest order.

As such, he has offered to drive us practically everywhere and show us everything about Portimao.

So far, we have been…

walking around town
walking around town
traditional Portuguese concerts
traditional Portuguese concerts
fish markets
fish markets
out for coffee
out for coffee
and surprise homemade liquor shots
and surprise homemade liquor shots
beach parties
beach parties
and this fucking magical place.
and this fucking magical place.

For these things, all I have to do is listen to this extremely kind man talk about his life. The best part is that everything he says is on point. He might repeat himself once or twice, but when it comes to sharing life lessons and experience, he is full of wisdom.

“Life is easy if you are organized.” This is so true. 

“Run your own way, don’t discuss it, just do it.” Okay, maybe I’ve heard a similar version to this, but also true.

And perhaps the best advice of all was that of living in general. His philosophy is that you should determine what it is that makes you happy, and organize your life such that you have all of those things near you. For example, he needs fresh vegetables and sunshine and a friendly community. He finds all that he needs in Algarve, and he is very happy in his modest life.

Just an aside, the produce here is amazing:

local and amazing
(local and amazing)

It’s almost like attending a lecture all day every day except instead of sitting in a hall, you get to go to fish markets and walk on the beach.

Kurt has helped drive the point home that I am 25 and I know fuck all.

I mean, I have learned a lot and the things I do know are generally good things. I have a decent capacity for new information and I would consider myself to be very open minded. But I have so much more to go. And so, I shut my mouth and listen to Kurt. There is nothing I could tell him that he doesn’t already know (except for maybe that peanuts and hazelnuts are not part of the same family). The point is, this guy is probably the most authentic couch surfer I have met, and he is one of the most generous people I have met.

I feel very fortunate to have had the experiences in Portugal that I have had. There were some trying times, but I have been blown away by how awesome this country and the people are. I suppose in every place there is a wasteland and a paradise, the trick is just finding the right people to show you what’s what.

I am happy to report that Portugal seems to be more Paradise than Wasteland. 

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The Last Post About Winter

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You woke up to the usual sights and sounds of your room. Wrapped in your sleeping bad, underneath your duvet, huddled next to Maria. You poked your head out from underneath the covers and watched your breath stream up into the air above you.

*sigh*

In preparation for your departure, you did a quick load of laundry the night before. Your wet clothes hanging randomly around your cold room. Well, if it’s not raining we can at least hang them on the line. They’ll be cold but they’ll dry, you said to yourself.

You grabbed your jacket, put on your boots and hat and had not even taken a full step outside when you stopped dead in your tracks.

La neige. Snow. The bane of your existence fluttering softly to the ground all around you. Snow is no longer beautiful to you. It reminds you of falling ash from an apocalypse. It reminds you of The Road. You sighed again and stepped back inside.

Last week was too good to be true. The temperature had reached at least 18 degrees C. Your flip flops came out, your sunglasses even. You went running. You went on daily walks. Life was getting better. What happened?

You really did not want publish another entry about how much you hate winter but there is nothing else to do. You have been practically sedentary since September and you’re just trying not to completely lose it. You’ve had one week of respite from freezing (and below) temperatures and unpleasant shit falling from the sky and it is not enough.

Way too much of your time has been spent huddled around a fireplace. Sure, you’ve read like 20 books, but most of your “traveling” has been a test of mental toughness (which you clearly have little of) and a test of just how physically uncomfortable you can be without crying (answer: not very).

You always seem to be waiting for something better….waiting for it to just get warm. Good god, you just want to be outside and enjoy it. You love being out doors, you love camping. You can’t wait to walk 20 kilometers and pitch a tent for the night, wake up to a sunrise over the mountains. Yes, a thousand times yes!

All you want to do is live outside. And experience a normal level of discomfort. In 4 months the worst thing that’s happened to you was getting step throat and your headphones breaking. But it seems like an emotional roller coaster.

All you want at this point is to be on the other side. You want this part of the trip to be a memory that you look back on and laugh at.

You are leaving tomorrow no matter what. You can’t postpone your hike any longer. Starting tomorrow you’ll be living outside for the better part of 40 days. You can’t let the weather dictate your experiences any more and you are actually quite terrified.

You just keep telling yourself you are hiking to Spring and you are traveling to summer. The only reason you are publishing this at all is so that you can re-read it when you consider complaining about how hot it is. If that is even possible.

Goodbye Winter.

You’ll update again in Spring.