Poker Face

For me, Estonia was a bar in Tartu and 6 hours laying face down on a massage table.

I’m serious. I did go to Tallinn, but I really have nothing to say about it other than it’s a city and I had amazing strawberries.  We were looking for some excitement, but it never presented itself. And so we headed to Tartu…

I found a host for us, she is a triathlete and getting her PhD in evolutionary biology. That is enough to make you cool in my book, and she did not disappoint. In fact, she was much, much more than that. Margot is intelligent, beautiful, and edgy in her own way. She also possess what I would later learn to be the Estonian Poker Face.

Alright, I am perhaps more emotionally effusive than most people, but sometimes being around Estonians makes me feel like I am taking crazy pills by contrast. Telling the story of how Maria and I met takes like 20 minutes, but when you ask an Estonian how they met their spouse/partner/whatever you are given a 3 sentence explanation.

“Well, he works in my lab. And one day I just asked him out. Now we live together.”

Alright, good talk.

Maria and I have a knack with getting people to come out of their shell a bit, and to our delight this was the case with Margot and her boyfriend. We heard all kinds of stories about him about how he is quiet and never says anything to anyone, ever. So imagine our surprise when he came home and we started talking to him and he actually spoke to us.  Not only that, but he took us out for beer and talks to us for hours. 

Oh by the way, yeah, another side-story of Estonia is that I realized as I sipped my “morning” coffee around noon, that we had been in Estonia for 8 days and had yet to make it 12 hours without drinking. I really had no idea how that happened, it truly took me by surprise, but now I completely understand why this is an Eastern European stereotype. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the bar we went to had free chocolate.

Margot, her friend Riina, Marko, and this other couchsurfer from New Zealand Hayden spent a lot of time with us in this particular bar.

It was in this bar that the subject of tattoos came up. Riina and Margot have awesome tattos. Apparently, the guy who did Riina’s actually lives in Tartu. His name is Mico and he is super busy. Thankfully, Riina is extremely charming and managed to contact him and “beg” him to meet with me about a tattoo while I was in town.

See, I have been wanting one for a while. Since January when I did Ayahuasca. If any of you remember my entry about Killing Bears and Taming Wolves, you might recall that I lucid-dreamed about a tattoo. Well, I later drew this design out while I was huddled next to a fire in France. Ever since then I have been waiting patiently for the universe to present me with the opportunity to get this drug-induced tattoo done (sorry mom). And this was looking promising.

Mico agreed to meet with me, and I threw down my drawings proudly waiting for some reaction.

BAM
BAM

I really didn’t know if I could trust anyone else to do it. I swear, his work was some of the most precise artwork I have ever seen, in fact, I didn’t even know some of the stuff he did was possible to tattoo. So even if he wasn’t super into MY design, I didn’t really care as long as he could get the job done. 

Then we talked about price.

“How much can you give me?”

“Uh…excuse me?”

“Well, I know you’re traveling, so how much are you prepared to spend.”

“I know I am traveling, but I want to pay you for your work.”

And then I gave him the estimated figure. To protect his reputation I will not publish it, but suffice to say it was a modest price. Even for something that wouldn’t take long, which he didn’t seem to think this would.

It ended up taking 6 hours.

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This is what dedication to an experience looks like. I got to spend a lot of time with Mico and get to know him a little bit. It was actually quite a pleasant experience. I am still blown away by the conspiring done by Margot and Riina to make this happen. It was really a group effort. Margot even held my hand when it was being done, and Riina showed up a few hours in to give me (and Mico) snacks. 

I managed to walk all around Tartu both at night and in the day time, I think at one point I also drank a liter of beer and had wild boar. But this is what I will remember about Estonia. I made new friends and I surprised myself when the time finally came to ramble on, I was actually sad to leave. 

The people make everything. This should come as no surprise. I’ve seen hundreds of cities, hundreds of churches, had countless coffees, countless beers, read countless maps. After a while it all starts to look the same. What I remember about places is not the way the cities look, it is who I met while I was there. The people are the story and they stay with you even after you’re gone.

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Into the Wild: The Miraculous Norway Adventure

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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. 

Adventures in the Highs and Lows

This was taken from an email I wrote to a friend. I realized that I am not exactly comfortable sharing my lows on this blog. I guess it comes from the idea that I am on this trip and I want to be having fun all the time, and I want my friends and family to think I am having fun all the time. Of course, that is not true and I think a lot of you know that already. So I decided after hitting ‘send’ that I would open up a bit more about this whole Miraculous Journey…
I had a good time in the Netherlands and an even better time in Denmark. We surfed with this American girl and her boyfriend in Hilversum and had a wonderful time. They were some of the coolest people I have met on this trip. Sarah, was hard at work writing her thesis, but she still managed to take time out of her schedule to chat with us (English, at lightening-speed). We played board games, watched movies, drank beer, it was great. But she had work to do, so we parted ways, promising to reconnect when we passed through the NL again after Scandinavia.

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Our next destination was Denmark. We hitch-hiked 900 kilometers in 24 hours. This included rides with 4 truck drivers which was awesome. I might blog about this separately, but I will just say right now that I love riding with truck drivers. They are technically “at work” so they keep to a schedule, there is a bed to sleep in during the ride, and they usually have built-in coffee makers. But more on that later…

So we reconnected with a friend we made on the Camino, Grethe. She is a 62 year-old-woman who was hit by a car and badly injured. She lost the use of her hands, arms, and hips but hrough years of alternative medicine and therapy, she finally regained her mobility. As a celebrationchallenge, she walked the entire Camino. She is definitely one of the most inspiration people I have met on this trip so far.

our first meal
our first meal
Grethe
Grethe
organic tri tip. I meant it when I said we were well fed
organic tri tip. I meant it when I said we were well fed

 

She greeted us at the door wearing an apron. Hugs followed and then an endless parade of nutritious food for 4 days. She lent us her flat for the duration of our stay and I can’t remember the last time I slept so well and was so well fed. Our days were sunny, full of walks, trips to the garden, coffee, and food. It was a much needed re-charge and I was so happy there. I was stretching every day, going for runs, eating well like I wanted…and then of course we had to leave.

we had ice cream
we had ice cream
I did this
I did this
we are this
we ate this

 

I think I started to get pretty low once we left. I was reminded of how beneficial staying in one place can be and I miss it. To make matters worse, when we were in Malmo, my brother reached out to me and confessed he wanted me to come home. He is having a hard time with life, you know, with a 1-year-old and trying to navigate a relationship with his son’s mother (thankfully, things are civil) and trying to be a good dad in the process. I gave him as much support as I could from a distance, but obviously I wish I could do more for him.

He went from a pot-smoking unemployed couch potato to a young father with a job and bills almost overnight. I really am proud of him, and I tell the story to anyone who wants to know about my family. I tell about my nephew and I am pleased to report he is surrounded by people who love him. But I can understand this was a huge change, very quickly for Alex. He is a sensitive dude, and I feel kind of guilty that I can’t be around when we are finally at the stage when we can interact with each other as adults. And of course, I miss my nephew. He is probably one of the cutest babies to ever exist (aside from me).

Grayson
Grayson

Then! One of my best friends ever announced that she is engaged and her wedding will happen next year and she hopes I will be back to attend. I was so happy, and so anxious at the same time. I wouldn’t dream of missing this. And yet, when Maria and I previously discussed the scenarios that would cuase us to come home right away, a wedding did not make the list. In fact, I think the only thing that did was terminal illness. And yet…here I am. But I am not surprised. My friendships mean a lot to me, especially my friendship with Maggie and why shouldn’t I be free to nurture the things in my life that I care about?

It was at this moment that I realized it is distinctly more difficult to travel when you are not running from anything, than it is to go away and leave so much behind. I was so comfortable in my old life that I needed to invent new challenges for myself, and I guess that is the whole point right? That is the optimal scenario, to be so efficient in taking what life throws at you, that you have the space to plan challenges for yourself. You know, like training for a fight, or a race. You do it because you know it’s good for you and it prepares you.

But it comes at a price. I am realizing this now. I spend a lot of time in the future, or the past. I am still not very good at focusing on the present. I do want to change that, but it is slow going. I have such an emotional connection to everything that I left, it is impossible to drag everything with me and make progress.

So when I arrived in Norway I was very down. It is a beautiful country, but all I wanted was to be back in Denmark, or back in Oceanside, or back in San Francisco, hell even Seattle. And I felt guilty about it. I am on this trip, in a beautiful place, and I have trouble enjoying it. I was hating everything. My backpack, the budget, the price of food here, the price of everything here and it was not fun.

I was browsing through our host’s book collection yesterday and I found Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. I stayed up most of the night reading it and I felt better. I mean, I still have no idea how I would react to such a situation, and it was an extreme example, but the idea that you should not be surprised when your lows are only punctuated by brief, fleeting highs, before they continue to get lower is valuable information. This is often how life behaves, and I recognize this pattern from the winter I spent in Europe.

The catch is that, if you remove yourself from the present, you never make it out of these spots alive.

My new strategy is this, I am taking a break from the Book of Face. I will answer emails when it’s convenient for me (and when they are from my parents), but otherwise, I purchased 2 books yesterday and I plan on reading and writing in my journal to pass the time.

We are taking a break from couchsurfing, and exclusively wild camping for the next few weeks while we journey to North Cap. It’s over 2500 kilometers and I have no idea how long it will take. But this is my moment to Alexander-Supertramp-it and really do something good for my soul. You know, without the dying part.

Finally, I told Maggie that I would go to her wedding even if it meant heading there straight from the airport. I discussed this with Maria and it was agreed that I can go home whenever I would like, but that doesn’t mean she will come back with me. She has her journey and her goals, and I have mine and we’re comfortable allowing each to take it’s course. And that made me feel much better, and much more in control. I can decide how to prioritize my own life. And it’s nice to know that I have support in my relationship to do what is best for me. I am thankful for that every day.

That is where I am at right now.

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. 

This is Morocco Part 1: Hospitality

I want to share a chronicle of what I have done on my trip so far in Morocco and how blown away I have been by Moroccan hospitality. But I also have a lot of thoughts and (a lot) of feelings about what it has been like traveling as a western, white, lesbian couple in a Muslim country (hint: it is a challenge).

Hopefully, I can do this right and give a good account of both. This first entry is all about my hosts and the people I’ve met here. Before I get into the couchsurfing experience, here is where I started:

The Preparation:

I spoke with maybe 15 people who had visited Morocco to get their opinion before I went. I received the entire gamut of advice and experiences. I heard “It’s amazing. You will love it.” from a slightly inebriated white, blonde English-speaking Hungarian woman. But I also heard “I really would not recommend it. Please, just don’t go there.” from an older English man from London.

“Well, now I have to go.” I said to myself. Still frightened.

My ticket to Tangier from Tarifa cost 33 euro. Way more than the 6 I had planned to spend. But whatever, it’s go time.

On the ferry, we spoke with an interesting family. The father was from the US, but he was working in the State Department in Casablanca. Maria asked him questions about our safety regarding hitch-hiking. He let us use his phone and then stuffed 200 Dirham into our hands “Just take it. Please. Good luck. Stay safe.”

Oh boy.

My First Impression:

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So nothing really could have prepared me for what I experienced when I got off the boat. It was a lot like when Maria told me “Traveling in winter is hard.” Okay so I knew it was hard, but I didn’t know it until I did it.

I knew we would stand out, and that we would get attention. It started immediately after we left the port building. A man followed us asking if we wanted a cab. Then when we shook him loose, another guy, then another.

People tried to “guide us”, help us, drive us places. This is just what happens here. Some of the guides will try to rip you off, this is just the reality. But everything is presented in a kind and friendly way. They are never rude or insulting, they are just very, very persistent and aren’t likely to take your first “no, thank you” as an answer. As an American, this is very different and uncomfortable. It just takes some getting used to.

But the general population is something else to consider. Our walk was filled with kissey noises, stares, gestures, etc. from men. (Note: Before you have to ask, I’ll answer your question. I was wearing hiking boots, long pants, a long sleeve shirt and my head was covered. Granted, my hair was in a braid that could be seen, but other than that, I was dressed modestly, as usual).

A fun fact about me is that I grew up completely void of any and all attention to men beyond friendship. As such, I have absolutely NO mechanisms for dealing with this kind of thing. Emotionally, or verbally. So I just try to ignore these things.

We took a break sitting on a bench just people-watching. We observed the men, and how they dressed. We looked at the women and observed how they behaved and what they wore. It really helped me get my bearings and I would recommend doing this to anyone who is experiencing extreme culture shock. Just find a public place and sit for an hour, or two.

During our break, another possibly homeless-looking man was staring at us. I was watching him intently through my sunglasses out of sheer fascination. When another man, carrying a giant pole with nougat candy walked past him, the homeless-looking man got some candy, and then gave the vendor some money and sent him our way.

He began to cut off some pieces of nougat.

“No, no it’s okay.”

“Relax. Tranquila.”

“We don’t have any money.”

“No quiero dinero, tranquila.”

And then he handed us some candy. It was sweet and delicious. The homeless-looking man continued to look at us, but nothing more.

Our first two hours in Tangier included interactions with approximately 20 different strangers, including a wink from a boy who couldn’t have been any older than 12. Maria got her wish, this was different than Europe.  

Couchsurfing in Morocco:

I should preface this by saying that my couchsurfing search in Morocco is a joke. I sent out a request to two people in Tangier, and in 12 hours I received over 30 invitations, all from men. We needed to be diligent and hope that we chose legitimate hosts and not guys who were just looking for a good time.

CS email screen shot

Fortunately, we chose wisely for our first host. Abdel greeted us 10 minutes early. He wore glasses and had a bit of 5 o’clock shadow and a big smile. I immediately felt relief after I saw him. Furthermore, after about 10 minutes in the car I realized that anyone who giggled as much as this guy couldn’t possibly do any harm.

His friend Mohammad was driving and in a moment we were off. Safe, away from the eyes of strangers looking out of place. From there, we proceeded to drive ALL OVER TANGIER. Abdel was determined to have us see the entire region regardless of how dark it was, or how tired we were. He bought us tea, and even dinner.

he fed us
he fed us
a lot.
a lot.

 

We pulled into an industrial park, at night. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was something awful. Like fish mixed with gasoline. I had to struggle not to put my shirt over my face. We got out of the car and started to walk. There were people everywhere. And there were fish. We were at the marina and there were fish vendors everywhere.

Men with giant baskets of shrimp, the size of wine barrels. There were buckets and buckets of unknown varieties of fish. There were octopi, and there were squid. There were entire sharks laid out on the pavement. My only regret was that I was unable to take any photos. We realized as soon as we stepped out that not only were we the only white people there, but we were clearly the only tourists there. This was such a beautiful combination of sketchy and culture-shock.

Just when we thought the tour was over, we turned the corner and arrived at some secret restaurant. This place was literally in an alley between two warehouses in the middle of the marina. We couldn’t have found this place if we tried. No wonder there were no tourists, it was borderline scary. But it was busy.

There were people everywhere sitting at tables cracking open shell-fish and eating with their hands. Men, women, children, everybody. Buss boys ushered us to tables where they tore off large squares of paper to cover our tables.

I do not recall anyone ordering anything, but before we knew it there was a basket of bread and a giant plate of steaming prawns before us. Maria looked scared. But I jumped right in.

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“What you do in California is one thing, but you are in Morocco now.” Mohammed said as I tried to offer to pay for my own food.

And this is how it went with each of our subsequent hosts. Maybe we just got lucky. I personally think we chose wisely. We read profiles carefully and it is pretty easy to tell who is legitimate and who isn’t. But the bottom line is that our hosts, though all (so far) were men, were all great.

I have experienced a few different flavors of Moroccan hospitality. Abdel drove us around and never left our side.  This was the tour-guide style couchsurf. We planned nothing and we were told only vague details about what to expect. We were just along for the ride.

Our second host was Mehdi. He lives in Rabat and as soon as I saw him I was (yet again) overcome with relief. He was a larger guy. Much taller than Abdel but something about his polo shirt and aviator sunglasses told me he was of a different type of Moroccan guy. He is 25 (like me) and is probably the coolest guy we stayed with. He lived with his parents, which meant his house was immaculate and his parents cooked for us (all the time).  He was also a perfect gentleman.

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We also spent a lot of time at home just relaxing. This was so welcomed after our last few days of go-go-go. Mehdi understood our need to just take some time to do nothing (this manifested in the form of watching 16 straight episodes of Prison Break). No pressure to go out and do things, no planning without consulting us, just good old fashioned laziness.

One of my favorite things was his willingness to communicate. He was always ready to engage in conversation with us and loved to discuss the differences between Moroccan culture and American culture. He is an open-minded dude, and shares most of my taste in music. In effect, he is exactly like any guy you would meet in America. In fact, we felt so comfortable with him that we actually outed ourselves for the first time in Morocco. Obviously, he was totally cool (I don’t think he will ever know how much this meant to us).

The third host we had was Jouaud, and I still do not understand him at all. He picked us up from the train station and left us promptly to go pick up other couch surfers from the airport. When he returned (they never showed up) he brought us to an apartment he rented specifically for our visit. Normally, this would be super creepy, but it turns out he had too many surfers and just did not have the space. Rather than turn people away, he rented a space for them and paid for it out of his own pocket. This is Moroccan hospitality at its extreme. Not only did he do this for us, but he also took us to the Kascades and gave us a reduced-price on our cab. He didn’t talk much, but he seemed intent on making sure we had a good time in Marrakech. But it even went beyond that.

He took us here by taxi and gave us subsidized rates due to our budget restrictions
He took us here by taxi and gave us subsidized rates due to our budget restrictions
he also bought me cherries
he also bought me cherries

 

He was so protective of everyone. When Maria and I were in McDonalds waiting for him, he showed up with a girl from Peru. She wasn’t staying with him, but he met her at the airport anyway and stayed with her until she met up with her host. Later that night, she sent him a text saying she did not feel comfortable staying with her host. He waited up for her, met with her later and she ended up staying with him instead.

This same night, he took a trip to the old city and bought us almonds, dates, and figs for our long bus ride the next day AND he bought Maria a birthday present. A little coin purse, a post card, and a pen.

That seems very gentlemanly, no? It actually blew my mind how this guy behaved until we met Mohammed. 

We arranged a host in Merzouga, Mohammed. He actually contacted us and invited us out. Upon careful examination of his profile, we determined he was the real deal. And he was. In fact, at one point when we told him casually that we were waiting for our other host (Jouaued) in McDonalds, he asked for his number, called him and told him where we were and then emailed us and said if Jouaued didn’t show up, he had at least 3 people in Marrakech who would come pick us up.

Actually, the entire time after we were in touch with Mohammed, was just like being watched by the secret service. Jouaued and Mohammed were calling each other discussing our whereabouts, drop off locations and contingency plans if something were to happen.

When we finally did reach Merzouga, we were escorted by Mohammed to his awesome house

our room
our room

…and given tea. Along with the knowledge that “if someone does not offer you tea when you are in their home, they do not like you.”

From there, we had breakfast waiting for us every morning in the living room:

mmmm Berber pizza
mmmm Berber pizza

 

and he arranged for me to accomplish one of my goals in life, which is to ride a camel in the desert.

VICTORY IS MINE!
VICTORY IS MINE!

 

I can’t really say that our fortune regarding hosts has been all luck. Maria and I are very diligent about the profiles of the people we choose to stay with. Perhaps we are lucky in some respects, but I think most of it can be attributed to just reading between the lines and being smart.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive experience I have had with my hosts, there is still some looming factor about Morocco that keeps me from falling in love with it completely. That is, it has been somewhat challenging to reconcile who I am with Moroccan culture. And that is what Part 2 is all about.

stay tuned…

 

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~

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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.

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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:

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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. 

The Way

Foreword: I decided sometime during the Camino that I was going to start writing my blog in the first person. I originally started this as something different. I suppose at the time I did not feel as though I truly owned this travel persona that I was inhabiting. But as of now, I have fully embraced the traveler and from now on, my blog (and my journal) are all written with I…

this way
this way

Now onto business. I have been putting off this entry, but it is time I publish something about my experience on the Camino. My reluctance stems mostly from the fact that this trip left me completely ragged and weary. As much as I wanted Spain to be fun and exciting, it was mostly frustrating and challenging. As much as I want to say that I was having the time of my life,  I mostly remember laying on death’s doorstep.

But through the difficulties came some very important realizations, naturally. The Camino has a reputation for doing true work on a person, whether they are aware of it or not. So here is the story…

For those of you who don’t know, the Camino de Santiago (or Way of Saint James) is the recreation of a historical pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the site where the remains of the apostle James are thought to be buried, Santiago, Spain. The route we took is the most famous, beginning in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and goes 720 kilometers through the northern part of Spain.

Our motivation for this was strictly practical. Maria and I love hiking, we love camping, and we would like to get more into thru-hiking in the future. This seemed like an excellent way to get our feet wet. It was also in Spain, where I have never been and a region where Maria had never been. We already had all of the gear, and all of the time. Done.

We expected to: camp most nights, spend around 5 euro per day on food, finish the hike in around 30 days. 

Reality: We camped exactly 6 nights, we were over budget almost the entire time, and it took us 38 days.

I will describe my walk as they pertain to the following categories:

1. THE WEATHER

We arrived in Saint Jean, not knowing what to expect really. There was snow on the ground and we camped in a random farmer’s field the first night, somewhere near the beginning of the trail and got an early start the next morning.

wild camping looks like this
wild camping looks like this.

What we realized quite quickly, is that after walking 26 kilometers, we are very, very tired. The first two days of the walk are big days and all uphill. This means they are above the snow line. Of course, we did not anticipate there being record snows in the Pyrenees this winter, but that is exactly what we got.

We showed up to a town that looked like this:

wtf.
wtf.

If you don’t know how I feel about snow and cold, go read “Thoughts on Traveling in Winter” and the post just before this one. To recap: cold and snow and rain fill me with homicidal rage. Especially after having seen only those things for the past 4 months with no respite whatsoever.

The very beginning of the Camino had me confronting harsh conditions and I had to be outside in them all day. The best part is that the cold and rain did not let up for THREE WEEKS.

It’s one thing to hike in some rain, and know that it’s no big deal because you can dry yourself and your stuff off the next day when it’s sunny. This was rainy day after rainy day. Cold after cold, wind after wind. It even hailed on us in APRIL. And I was going out of my fucking mind. The worst part was that being inside offered no relief. Every place we stayed was a 900 year old monastery made of stone with no heating. I had to practically go to sleep in all of my clothes. This is how I spent the better part of the first month:

coffee and a small heater.
coffee and a small heater.

Of course, we couldn’t camp in these conditions. Sometimes we did, but only when it was above freezing at night. I was not happy and I am ashamed to admit (but I will) that I cried. I cried a lot. In fact, there were at least two times where I found myself shaking with sobs. But the last time it happened was definitely one of my lowest points. It occurred almost two full weeks after we left Burgos, on April 14th. We were hiking to Cruz del Ferro that day (arguably the most significant point on the Camino). Suddenly, the temperature dropped and I was back in my dark place, wearing all of my clothing, and just waiting for it to be over. Then the heavens opened up and unleashed hell.

I remember standing on top of a mountain shouting “FUCK YOU, SPAIN!” as loud as I possibly could, knowing no one could hear me over the rain. I was talking out loud to myself like a crazy person. Finally, I snapped and began walking in every puddle I could find to get as wet and as cold as possible, because fuck you, Spain. I nearly injured myself doing this and even at the time I knew I was having a mental breakdown.

I rolled into the next town to find a beer waiting for me. I just sank into the chair and cried. Then I stopped, and never cried about it again. The point was, that happened to me. I don’t think that is a normal Camino experience for anyone. And it was hard.

2. GETTING SICK

Getting sick is not fun. It is especially not fun when you are in a foreign country and you are on the move to a new place every day and must leave your hostel by 8am.

I met other pilgrims who have gotten ill on the Camino. It happens, there are a lot of pilgrims and close quarters. Also, in some regions the water is not exactly treated as well as in others. Things go around. But I do not know of any other pilgrim who got sick TWICE. 

This is where germs live.
This is where germs live.

Just do me a favor for a moment and imagine being here in a room full of people (the above photo). Then having to climb out of bed every 20 minutes to puke your guts out for SEVEN STRAIGHT HOURS.

I can say proudly that Maria and I both became ill hours and days apart respectively, with stomach-flu-food-poisoning-esque illnesses, and we did not take a day off from walking.

this is apparently very alarming to passing traffic.
this is apparently very alarming to passing traffic.

…except for when Maria was ill in Samos. But still that average is pretty good.

The point is, I thought the weather was agonizing. Then I was confronted with cold and rain AND vomiting over freeway guard rails with my backpack on for 15 kilometers. I can now say with confidence, that agony is walking the Camino with the stomach flu. Or walking it when your girlfriend has the stomach flu.

3. THE BUDGET

Our budget suffered. We could not camp as much as we wanted to for a few reasons. The weather was one aspect, but it wasn’t everything. The company is a huge draw to the albergues but I’ll get to that later.

The issue is that we were confronted with this system of lodging that we had to participate in, but we could not afford. Our budget is only 7 euros a day (each). An albergue is anywhere from 5-10 euro per night, but it’s usually 5-8. That leaves between 4 and -2 euros for both Maria and I to eat, daily.

When you are as conscious of freeloading and taking advantage of strangers as we are, it is very difficult to work out this lifestyle. We ate very cheap food. Bread and nutella, rice, pasta with oil, eggs, and various seasonings. Not to mention endless tea cookies. Occasionally we sampled some local delicacy off the plates of our friends, but usually it was poor man’s meals.

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Maria ended up using her magical stretching powers on other pilgrims, and received donations from some of them. We called this the Generous Pilgrim Fund, or simply “the bag.”

Basically, any money we found or received on our trip went into a bag. From there, we were able to draw supplements to allow us to stay in albergues and feed ourselves. It was the only way we could feel in exchange with people around us and the system as a whole. But it was a shock to our system. It took some time to get into a rhythm but in the end it was completely worth it because…

4. THE COMPANY

this happened on our second night and we couldn't rid ourselves of these guys even when we tried.
this happened on our second night and we couldn’t rid ourselves of these guys even when we tried.

Here is the overwhelmingly good part of the Camino. We made friends. Lots of them. Good ones. And that is probably worth all of the aforementioned bullshit. We met people on our second day on the trail, and then somehow stuck with them.

I walked with people for entire days and you can really get to know someone if you talk to them for 5 hours. Maria and I got particularly close with a Canadian couple called Fred and Jen (or Fredifer). We also met Niny, a 60 year old Dutch woman who spoke 6 languages fluently. We also met Gretchen, who was as close to an angel in the flesh that I think a person can be.

The amazing thing was seeing these relationships develop over time. You leave people and then run into them a little later. For us, we could not shake our Canadians. Every time we left them, we ran into them again. Of course, they were trying pretty hard to make sure we found them again as well.

they left us notes like this everywhere
they left us notes like this everywhere

But the point is that with friends like that, why would we want to spend 5 hours a day in a tent by ourselves? Of course we are going to change our plans and make sure we can have dinners with these guys, and walk with them.

We got so close with these two in particular, that we actually met up with them in Porto 4 days after we finished the Camino. We gave them some of our winter clothes to take back to Quebec with them so we can pick it up from them when we visit. That kind of thing.

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Others were shorter lived companions, but still just as close. Niny invited us to stay with her in Amsterdam when we come through later this year. Even though she is going to Italy for 3 weeks, we are more than welcome to the keys to her house and we can stay as long as we need to.

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Paul from California offered us a place in Bend, Oregon any time we’re in town. We knew a Swedish woman for 2 days, and by the end of the second day, she was giving us her contact info and telling us she’d have an apartment and a fully stocked fridge waiting for us in Stockholm.

THE END OF THE ROAD

The Camino was difficult in many ways. It was physically challenging and even more mentally challenging. It forced me to confront a lot of things about myself that I want to change. Such as my inability to cope with adverse weather conditions. It also helped me realize when my breaking points occur and how I behave when I am feeling weak.

I did not originally begin this walk with any sort of intention or spiritual goal. What I found was the intention made itself clear along the way. I needed to make it through rough times just to know that I could. I needed to increase my mental toughness.

In the end, laying there in the middle of the square after it was all over, I remember the feeling that I had gained something. What, I’m still not exactly sure, but the story needed to be told anyway. 

A Week in Paris for 50 Euro

Oui Oui
Oui Oui

Paris is big, old, and full of awesome stuff and awesome people. It also happens to be one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It should come as no surprise to anyone that you are on an ultra-low budget during your travels. 7 euro per day might be reasonable in a small country town, but here that notion is absurd. In fact, you were met with incredulous laughter anytime you told anyone living in Paris about your 7-euro-per-day budget. 

Despite this, you managed an incredible week in this grand city and only spent 50 euro. How? Surely you must not have had a very good sampling of all Paris has to offer.  Okay, so you didn’t go to the Louvre every day for 3 or 4 days like a real tourist. But the food, the entertainment, there is no way you could have fun every day and spend that little. Impossible.

Possible. 

The key to all of this is deeply rooted within your travel philosophy. Of course values are everything.  Some people need those kitchy overpriced souvenirs, and they need to go out to dinner every night, and stay in a hotel, and go to the top of the Eiffel tower, and take taxis everywhere.

You need to have an authentic experience and meet local people and do local people things with them. You need to see things. And thus, your trip went something like this:

Tuesday-

You set up a couch-surfing host well in advance and were planning to stay with him for the entire week. Knowing you will be living in someone’s home for a week, it is important that you do not rely on them too much. They are providing you with a place to sleep, access to a bathroom and a kitchen for free. This is more than enough on their part and so you do not expect them to feed you also. According to your travel ethics, you must be prepared to be self-sufficient at all times. This means feeding yourself.

You were conveniently dropped right within the city boundary and the first thing you and Maria did was go to the grocery store. The grocery store is one of your favorite rituals when traveling. It gives you an opportunity to sample local foods without being completely ripped off. Among other things, France is the land of cheese, wine, 50 cent baguettes, and charcuterie. Their grocery stores reflect this in variety and price.  Behold:

The most French shopping cart there is
The most French shopping cart there is

Due to an exceptionally lucky day of hitch-hiking, you arrived at your host’s apartment about 30 minutes early. This is not usually a problem for those who stay in hotels or hostels. You check in when you arrive. But the money you save waiting around (in your opinion) is well worth it. This is how a traveler on a budget kills time:

derp derp derp
journalism

When your host finally did arrived home from work, he lead you up to his apartment. Famished and fully stocked from the grocery store, you had a nice get-to-know-you meal together. Vincent graciously contributed a bottle of wine from his own collection. What you spent on the food was given back to you tenfold in Vincent’s generosity and good company. This is how it usually goes.

Grocery store food, plus extra contribution from your hosts is much better than an expensive restaurant and still just as French.
Grocery store food, plus extra contribution from your hosts is much better than an expensive restaurant and still just as French.

Wednesday –

Your first day out in Paris. Vincent kindly left you a key so you could come and go as you pleased. Today was the day of introduction. The first thing on your list was Notre Dame. You were content to just look at the building, but as luck would have it, entry is free. Score! Little gems like this occasionally present themselves and they are always to be taken advantage of. 

Although you might have paid to see it. It was spectacular.
Although you might have paid to see it. It was spectacularly free of charge.

Notre Dame was easily within walking distance from your host. About 30 minutes. Now, this is sort of a crucial step because you do realize that you are able and willing to walk much farther than the average person. Blame this on your life in San Francisco, if something is within 2 miles, you will walk. When traveling (especially when you don’t have a backpack) if something is within 5 miles you will walk. You have learned over the short time you’ve spent on the road that nothing compares to what you see and observe while on foot. This is why you decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower.

You suspect most tourists (with the exception of those tourists with children, you certainly have an excuse) would take a taxi to the park and spend a half hour walking around and buy some food nearby. For you and Maria, your idea of an Eiffel Tower outing is to pack a lunch and set off with your day packs.

Many sights and many photos later you arrived here:

Victory!
Victory!

You enjoyed your packed lunches on a bench just across from the one in this photo and went on your way. You spent the whole day outside looking at Paris and enjoying the city the way the locals enjoy it – mostly on foot. (Is this perhaps why the French are so thin?)

On your way home you stopped at a farmer’s market and picked up some artisan foods for an excellent price (4 euro for charcuterie which ended up lasting you 4 days and 4 euro for 500 grams of artisan organic cheese. Not bad folks). For dinner that night, you cooked some of your groceries from the previous shopping excursion and called it a day.

Thursday –

Breakfast is served: the charcuterie and cheese you purchased the day before. Yum!

You also purchased a baguette and a pastry from the local patisserie next door. Total: 2.91
You also purchased a baguette and a pastry from the local patisserie next door. Total: 2.91

Later that day, you and Maria walked to the movie theater to see Les Miserables. Your ticket cost 4.60 because you are under 25 and her ticket only cost 6.50 because it was a matinee. (Did you hear that America? 11 euro for two people to see a movie).

As an added perk, you were able to walk through a different section of Paris and see even more of the city on foot. It was a relaxing but eventful day.

Your host invited you to an art exhibit by a friend of his that evening. The exhibit was awesome and afterward, he took you and Maria out for drinks. And paid for them. This is not something you rely on your hosts to do, but it is always appreciated when it happens. Thus, you had an authentic outing with a bunch of French people at no cost to you.

You finished the with some quiet down time with your host, reading on the couch. For a traveler, rest is important.

Friday-

Louvre! You packed a lunch and set off for a wonderful art tour. Of course you had no choice but to pay the 11 euro for the ticket. And of course, you couldn’t imagine anything more worth it if you tried.

Touristy things still happen when you're on a budget.
Touristy things still happen when you’re on a budget.

The point is, you are selective about what you want to do. Rather than see the entire Louvre because “you must”, you chose the things you wanted to look at and planned the day around that. Even as an artist and an art history major, there is certain art you care about and certain art you don’t (as much). For this trip, you decided to be selective and have a relaxed day in an outstanding museum.

You and Maria followed up the visit with a final run to the grocery store and a nice walk down main street. You went slightly over budget on this day, but not by much, and you still got a lot of sight-seeing in.

But what about other entertainment? The bars? the excitement?

Leave it to your host to cover that one. Vincent was planning a BeWelcome party that night, at his/your apartment. No taxis or metro required and you had a lot of fun and got to meet a bunch of new people and listen to 90’s club music until 4am. Priceless.

Hat party
Hat party

Saturday –

Early afternoon when you woke up, Vincent insisted on cooking you a French dish while you stayed with him. This involved a trip to the best farmer’s market you’ve ever seen and some damn-good food. Again, no cost to you.

Brunch and a show!
Brunch and a show!

Vincent was also kind enough to invite you along to play squash with some of his friends and then play board games afterwards. These are the kind of things your method of travel provides that other, more costly, methods do not. You could not pay for a day like this if you tried. These moments are entirely unique to who your host is and what kind of people you meet. They are random but they always happen in some way or another. It turned out to be a wonderful day full of awesome people, fun games, and of course, more delicious food.

Squash!
Squash!
Games!
Games!
Food!
Food!

You would like to note that you never want to free-load. You contribute when you must and you feed yourself when you must. In this case, you made sure your exchange with them was even. You and Maria purchased your own beer and some other things and only took what was offered to you. Even when you contribute monetarily or otherwise, your cost is almost always less than in a restaurant and always far more interesting and fun.

Sunday –

The hike. In Europe everything is closed on Sunday so there is usually no point in going outside. Also, everyone is recovering from their partying on Saturday. Still, sights are always open, and thus you and Maria embarked on a 17.5 kilometer walk around the city, visiting some less popular spots.

like the Beat Hotel
like the Beat Hotel
Pastry break!
Pastry break!

The money you do spend when you go out is selective, and thus, very special when it does occur. You will probably remember that pastry for the rest of your life because it’s not competing with a bunch of other experiences of the same kind. That is the same principle you follow when it comes to most food in foreign countries. Be selective and choose special things. 

A few trips to the grocery store to off-set some key splurges is well worth it. Additionally, giving up some privacy to stay with a local comes with its own special benefits. When you stay with a local you meet other locals and make friends. Usually, they invite you to do things that they do on weekends, or suggest good spots for you to go to that would be unknown to you otherwise.

In return, you respect their space, clean up after yourself, and provide them with stimulating conversation and allow them to entertain you when they offer. All it takes to spend a week in Paris for 50 euro is a loose itinerary, selective splurging, and a willingness to share your experience with others. It is a win-win for everyone and you can’t imagine traveling any other way.

Belgium Bewitchment

Belgium is wonderful and everyone should visit at least once in their lives. For you, at least, this is the best place you could have chosen to spend the coldest days of the year.

Your opinion includes three cities; Brussels, Gent, and Antwerp (you didn’t exactly make it to Bruges – see previous entry). But you feel as though you have a good sense of this place, because let’s face it, if you’re not going to one of the aforementioned cities then what the hell are you doing in Belgium anyway?

Brussels:

Let’s just start from the beginning. You first landed yourself in Brussels, the self-proclaimed uglyImage city. It’s not ugly, it is just sort of inconsistent architecturally, which for Europe you guess is something of note. But this is the capitol of Europe where you can go to European Parliament and watch official bureaucrats on their official lunch breaks eating their official sandwiches. You can also drink outstanding beer and have the best waffle you’ve ever had in your entire life. Oh and see the fountain (a toddler peeing) which is not that cool, but nevertheless, a tourist attraction. (You can also get waffles for 1 euro right across the street)

You and Maria followed the advice of your tour map and purchased some chocolate from a local supermarket. Apparently the quality is the same it’s just way cheaper to buy it there. Indeed. It is no secret that Belgians take chocolate very seriously, and this was something you were very keen on exploring. Verdict: amazing. 

and also the cheapest way to include nuts i
70% or gtfo

Your couch surfing host took you out to a bar that night where you had your first beer in Belgium. This goes without saying, but all the rumors are true. Belgians take their beer fucking seriously, and as a result it is seriously fucking delicious. It’s also on average, 2.5 times stronger than the average beer you’d drink in America. You decided to start off your beer-tasting with a triple Chimay. Good choice.

Gent:

But you can get Chimay in the U.S. too, no big deal. You wanted something you could only get in Belgium. You wanted some 11% abbey beer, something that only the locals know about. Which brings you to Gent…

not to be confused with Hogwarts
not to be confused with Hogwarts

Brussels was cool, and you had an awesome waffle in addition to walking around in the snow looking for grocery stores, but your happiness simply bloomed when you arrived in Gent. Holy shitballs this city is beautiful. It is small and full of towering cathedrals and everything looks like it’s straight out of the 16th century. It is here that you experienced another staple of Belgium in addition to beer; frites.

nomnomnom
nomnomnom

That overflowing packet of fried goodness cost you 2.25 euro and you are certain that is the best 2.25 you’ve spent here. Belgians also take their fries very seriously and it shows. They are actually fried twice, and served with everything. Yum.

Back to the beer…Your amazing hosts Liesbeth and Sven provided you with your own room, your own bathroom, and a fridge full of beer. Sven and Liesbeth are not very heavy drinkers (despite being Belgian) but they made sure you and Maria could sample as many flavors as possible. It was glorious and you are eternally grateful.

pinch me, I must be dreaming
pinch me, I must be dreamming

You had lots of beer (and if your dad happens to be reading this, you would like him to know that the beer is everything he thinks it will be and more). Now you skipped Bruges so you don’t have much to say about that but Gent was where you became aware of your love for Belgium. The true moment of realization was when you were walking down the streets on trash day, and everyone had set their trash outside of their doors in an orderly fashion, sorted for recycling. *swoon*

Antwerp:

DSC_0158

Antwerp, from what you can tell, is like the European San Francisco. This is what San Francisco aspires to be. Everyone rides fixie bikes and has mustaches, only it’s not hipster, it’s just European. It is a harbor city, and the only one that knows how to do coffee right. Antwerp is the land of diamonds and fashion, but they also have a very interesting coffee culture. It is as if there were different variations of Blue Bottle Coffee all around, except they have different themes and the coffee is better. (There, you said it.)

Your first stop was the famous Caffenation. However, you arrived at the old location because your travel guidebook was pretty out of date. You happened upon a literal closet with 3 stools at a window ledge and one guy behind the counter. When you asked for the toilet, you were lead into a dodgey back room where the door was missing a glass pane and had a giant wire running through it. You were instructed not to shut the light off because it was connected to his refrigerator. There was hardly enough room for you and your bag to exist in the space, but my god did he brew you an excellent cup of coffee.

IMG_8566

It is rare in Europe to get drip coffee. Usually you are confined to espresso or the pitiful americano, and you have a hard time justifying the extra 1.50 euro for them to add water. All things considered, your barista promised you a tasty cup, and he delivered. This was also the moment when Maria’s life was forever changed. 

IMG_8568That was the moment she transcended into being a true coffee connoisseur. “Oh my god, it’s about flavor.” You also enjoyed your cup and after you met your host, you proceeded to the next location. Broer Bretle. This was a bit more like Blue Bottle in the way they make their coffee, and the atmosphere was excellent. Chess boards and interesting music along with 70’s wallpaper and more mustaches.

IMG_8593IMG_8595

Tomorrow you will head to Coffee Lab and the new, larger location for Caffenation. You will also check out the Friday street market and an 80 year old pedestrian tunnel and a book printing museum. You are set to leave on Sunday and between Antwerp and your next “event” you probably won’t have time to update again but suffice to say, Belgium has been an awesome experience and you are totally looking forward to coming back in the summertime. 

You’ve had the best waffles, beer, fries, and chocolate, along with the best COFFEE (you were not expecting that) and everyone is attractive and polite. Nevermind that it is the dead of winter and you are freezing your ass off all the time, this place really is the business. 

Thoughts on Traveling in the Winter

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You just had a meltdown in Starbucks in the city center of Gent. Granted, you captured maybe 2 hours of sleep last night and have been having quite a day mentally battling with yourself. Still, there is no excuse for that shit. And yet, here you are.

It began with a walk to a poor hitch-hiking spot on your way to Bruges. You tried for a few minutes with no success. Then, your second spot landed you two lifts, but unfortunately none of the drivers were actually going to Bruges (did they even read your sign?). You decided to embark on a last effort to the east side of the city and try to get a lift out there. However, it was a very, very long walk. IMG_8504

You would also like to mention that it was a brisk -5 C (23 degrees Fahrenheit)  out that morning (the weather report actually said something like “freezing fog” but you don’t think you saw any of that, whew!).  It was in this, that you trudged along, listening to the rhythm of your boots crunching over the snow and ice packed on the sidewalk.

You were uncomfortable. You were tired. That kind of super-fatigued tired that just radiates out of your core and makes your muscles feel like molasses. Your hands were numb, bunched into fists inside your gloves, which were shoved inside the pockets of your North Face jacket. Your face stung and so did your nasal passages when you took a breath. It was like this the entire walk to god-knows-where. You weren’t sure. You followed Maria loyally as she asked for directions and briefly consulted you on which way you ought to turn.

You were kind of indifferent. You began to entertain thoughts like “Bruges probably isn’t that cool.” and “If we don’t get a lift before 2pm we should call this off.” You checked your watch. 12:17. Damn. Almost two more hours of this.

Finally, she turned to you and sounded serious.

“My heart is breaking for you right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I didn’t know it was going to be this far to the road. I know you’re tired and I feel like I’m taking you on a death march. I just want to know how you’re feeling.”

And with that, you promptly burst into tears.

You didn’t want to go. If it meant spending more time out in this cold, you wanted nothing to do with it, and promptly sought refuge inside an outdoors store and ate a cookie you had packed. Ah, much better.

But it didn’t end there. Once you decided to forego hitch-hiking to Bruges, you came up with a contingency plan to get more frites (which were god-damn-delicious) at the place you went yesterday, provided they were not closed. You put on your head phones and began the long (but noticeably more cheerful) walk back to the city center.

You had your frites outside on a bench. Not ideal, but they were so good that you forgot about how utterly cold you were. Then you made a point to find the coffee shop that had alluded you the day before. Found it. Bam. Ordered a 3 euro latte and ate another cookie.

IMG_8562This is where Maria broke the news that you would probably have to camp on your way to Normandy after Antwerp. Oh man, not exactly what you wanted to hear. The idea of pitching your tent on a pile of snow did not make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. However, you agreed that this was the optimal scenario.  You can handle it. This is what travelling is all about, being butch and doing crazy things like camping in the snow and what not.

And you know what? This day was looking up, for sure. Hey, you were indoors, which any local will tell you is the best place to be. Unfortunately, this would be the high-point of your day. 

It was not sufficiently warm in this place, although your latte was delicious. So you decided to relocate to a Starbucks and snag a seat upstairs and wait out there until 6 pm when you were to meet up with one of Maria’s friends. This is where it all went downhill.

You arrived upstairs to find it completely packed with students and you were overwhelmed with anxiety. Maria grabbed two empty discarded ceramic mugs off the table (which you are certain everyone saw) and plop them down awkwardly on the end of a long table and went to search for chairs. You did not like this. Not one bit. You felt awkward, and like everyone was judging you for totally barging in, stealing used cups to avoid paying for a drink, and try to find space. In other words, you were acting completely irrational.

So you cried again.

Sitting at the edge of the table, Maria tries her best to figure out whats going on. The truth is, you don’t really know. You just hate life. You have been cold for the entire day and you’re exhausted (probably also hormonal) and you just were not expecting to walk into a goddamn packed room full of people looking at you funny and talking about you in Dutch (probably….right?)

What the hell is wrong with you? Why is it that you break down in the most benign situations? You should be ashamed of yourself (check). But after you had some time to distill all of these ridiculous feelings of yours, you have determined that you learned some pretty valuable things in the last 4 days of your life.

1. The daily temperature has a new meaning when you spend multiple hours outside in it. 

You posted something on your facebook about you and Maria getting bundled up because it was 23 degrees outside. A friend of yours commented that that was nothing! They lived in New York where it was like this for months and all they needed was a pea coat and a scarf, no gloves. Well you know what? Fuck you. I bet that works when you’re just walking from for front door to your car. Or two blocks from the metro station to the bar. You want to tell them to try spending 5 consecutive hours outside and then talk to you about how warm they are in their two layers of cotton and jeans.

2. Being warm costs money.

You realized quickly that being outside in such cold for long periods of time is not fun and the prospect of being warm utterly consumes you. This is when you start fantasizing about holding a hot coffee and sitting at a table next to a heater, or even better a real fire. It becomes all you can think about. The problem is, there is rarely any free indoor space. In the summertime, when you get tired, or want to eat your packed lunch, you can just make your way to the nearest park and throw your backpack under a tree and spend all the time you want there. You can be outside all day and have a grand time. This is not true in winter. It is simply too uncomfortable to enjoy anything after you have been outside in 20 degrees for 4 hours. Everything is wet and or frozen. There is no rest but in coffee shops and in order to utilize this space, you must buy something.

3. You don’t fit anywhere with a backpack.

Coffee shops are small. Your backpack is not. There is nothing more awkward than having to lift a camping backpack over someone’s head as you squeeze into a corner table and try to order the cheapest thing on the menu and stay there for 3 hours. And even if you really didn’t have the money for a coffee and just wanted to go into a shop, let’s say, to look at the 400 beers brewed in Belgium, you can’t because you have a giant pack strapped to you. You are then, limited to larger shops, and of course, it is less acceptable to spend loads of time there.

4. Your couch surfing hosts can’t meet you until after *insert time*PM. 

This is the main reason you have learned the first 3 lessons. It would be great if someone met you as soon as you arrived in the city. You could put your bag down, have a cup of tea and then walk around light as a feather for an hour or two at a time. Also in a perfect world, you could come and go as you pleased, always knowing you had access to a warm space to thaw out. But that has not been the case since you arrived. In fact, the only scenario you know is the following: You cannot meet you host before 6pm, so you must hang out in the city with your pack until then. Once you leave your hosts house in the morning, you are not allowed to return until after 6pm. See lessons 1-3 and repeat as necessary.

In conclusion, travelling in the winter is hard, and you just wanted to let everyone know.