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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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:
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.”
My First Impression:
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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
…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:
and he arranged for me to accomplish one of my goals in life, which is to ride a camel in the desert.
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.
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…
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
…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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Okay so you have been in Normandy for a few weeks now and nothing very exciting has happened. That is not to say that you are not enjoying yourself, because you are, a lot. You are learning a great deal about construction and you’ve had the opportunity to operate heavy machinery on more than one occasion. Aside from that, you are surrounded by horses, rolling hills, green pastures, and rain. Your hosts are great and you are fed well. But sometimes, you need to break up the monotony and get off of this muddy farm.
Maria wanted you to see Mont Saint-Michel, as it is very close to where you are staying (about 80 kilometers away). You learned later that it happens to be the second most-visited world heritage site, so you really have no reason not to go.
To spice things up a bit, you invited your co-workawayer Clementine to come along with you. Hitch-hiking with 3 people is not ideal, however, Clementine is a very cute girl so you figured it couldn’t hurt your chances. Naturally, she was intrigued by your method of transportation and you thought you’d share your wealth of knowledge with her. (aside: her boyfriend also seemed skeptical of her ability to actually hitch-hike somewhere, and of course, you jumped at the chance to prove some guy wrong).
Thus, your adventure begins:
It was around 11am, a bit later than you’d want to leave, but that’s cool. Mont Saint-Michel is only 80 kilometers away, you can hitch that in no time. Spirits were high and you were just glad to be off of the farm for the day.
On your way into town, you came across this ostrich:
You have no idea where someone in Normandy would get one of these, but you found one nonetheless. This is only one, of about 30 pictures that were taken of the creature.
Finally, you made it down to town and were plucked off the side of the road by a truck driver delivering a shipment of something or other. You had to sit on Maria’s lap because space was scarce, but he was only able to take you 5 kilometers. Boo. This would be the theme of the morning.
The next driver picked you up a few kilometers down the road. Maria thought initially he had some sort of “postural defect” but it turns out he was just a tall man driving a very tiny car. The entire car smelled like petrol and he smoked the entire way. As you and Clementine bobbed your heads along to the French hip-hop blasting from the sub-woofers in the back seat, he casually missed your first turn.
A bad omen. Maria pointed out that we should have turned left at the junction and your driver assured you that this was an alternative route. You consulted Clementine’s Oracle (iPhone) and confirmed that he was indeed correct. This new route went tangent, but parallel with your original google maps plan. No problem buddy, You’re a local, you must know what you’re doing.
Unfortunately, this fellow also could not take you very far and you were dropped in a small town again, not very far from where you started.
Spirits were still high, and you proceeded to walk to the edge of town. A few kilometers later, a woman in a roomy and clean van picked you up. Again, she could only drive you a few kilometers, but you were willing to take anything. Still, you found it odd that it seemed to take so long in between lifts and your drivers consistently were only going in very short distances. Oh well, no worries right?
You didn’t know it at the time, but this was about to get bad. All signs pointed to an easy-breezy coast to your next destination. You were on a two-lane country highway, surrounded by fields and farms. Perfect. Anyone going in your direction has NO reason not to stop for you. Everyone is going the same direction and there are no turn offs.
Great. Except for the fact that NOT A SINGLE PERSON STOPPED FOR YOU. This was your life for about 5 kilometers:
Car after car zoomed past you. They turned their blinkers on well in advance and sped past. Most of them didn’t even look at you. Stoic, mean-looking country folk. God, Normandy sucks.
“If this were Belgium we would be there by now.” You said. And this is probably completely true. People in Belgium are NICE and aren’t afraid of picking up 3 well-dressed (read: clearly not homeless or hippie) young girls. What a bunch of idiots. You were slightly frustrated, moreover, scared that you would not actually make it to your destination. Still, despite you slowly freezing to death and being hungry, you were still very happy to not be working today. Surely, someone would pick you up.
They did. But it wasn’t until you resorted to standing by a sign and begging drivers to pick you up. You pressed your hands together on your chest in prayer, tried to look them directly in the eye and in the end, probably overcome with guilt, a woman pulled over for you.
She drove you to the next town (thank GOD) even though at the time you were unaware that it would take an actual miracle to get you out of it. According to your first driver with the postural defect, if you made it to Avranches, it was “right next to” Mont Saint-Michel. This is actually FALSE (fun fact: locals actually don’t know anything, thanks, townie).
Your miracle came as you rounded a curved part of the road, hugging the guard rail as not to be murdered by a careening semi-truck. They were passing you in droves.
“Okay guys, if we aren’t within reasonable walking distance at 3pm, we should turn back, deal?” Everyone agreed. It was just before 2. Time was running out.
Your “trail angel” of two women with some common sense, picked you up and told you they would take you to a proper place to wait for a lift. This turned out to be the junction to the motorway. It was now after 2pm and you had been hitch-hiking for nearly 3 hours and you still had about 20 kilometers to go.
The three of you, tired but still determined, ate a hasty lunch of brioche, brie, and tomatoes on the on-ramp. You were so close, and this was your last-ditch effort. There is no more walking from there, as it is illegal to walk on the motorway. There you stood with your sign, begging people in passing cars for a ride.
As fate would have it, you were plucked off the road by a very drunk, but friendly, French farmer. He took you the back way directly to the monument, however, it was not without a price.
He was VERY serious about making sure everyone in the car CLEARLY understood the history of Mont Saint-Michel. And so it goes, in the words of our friendly drunk:
“FIRST….it was an abbey…..THEN…it was a prison….AND THEN…..it was a fortress….AND NOW….it is tourist attraction for American and Japanese tourists.”
lol. Oh monsieur, you are so silly.
But no, he stared back at you in the back-seat. Clear blue eyes bulging out of his head. He glanced at Maria and repeated himself two or three more times.
Long story short, Saint Michael slayed a dragon-devil riding the place of evil for good. When we arrive, we must keep our eyes up at all times, and give our sincerest thanks to Saint Michael for what he did for us.
We finally got out of the car, shook the man’s hand, and darted down the causeway. FINALLY:
You made it to your destination! Just as it was beginning to rain! But nothing was going to crush your spirits now but you had won because it was EXACTLY 3pm.
And so the three of you sauntered around the monument, sans evil, thanks to Saint Michael and all was well in the world
After you decided it was time to leave, the second wave of anxiety set in. You had roughly 2 hours until sunset and if getting here was any indication of the journey ahead, you needed to seriously hustle.
Perhaps, the gods felt as though you had paid your dues, because you were quickly grabbed from near the visitor parking lot by a couple who brought you to the junction where your road home was. You waited there for maybe 10 minutes before two young guys in a utility van pulled over for you.
This was great. You remembered your first ride in Ireland fondly. Two guys pulled over and put you and Maria in the back of their van with no windows that didn’t open from the inside. You were excited that Clementine would ALSO get this experience in her first day of hitch hiking. And so Maria sat in front with the fellas and you and Clementine hung on to ladders and tools in the back.
The drove you quite a distance and thanks to Maria’s artful conversation skills (in French) and a good-natured guy, she managed to get you a lift right back to the small town you needed to get to. Oliver (your driver) had to pass by St. George de Rouelle on his way home from work. If it was alright, we could wait 15 minutes while he dropped off his van and punched out, he’d come back and take us all the way home.
And so it was. We had a lovely ride with a very polite, very nice French guy and made it home in about an hour. A complete 180 from getting to the monument. You are used to this though. Sometimes hitch-hiking goes very well and for some reason it doesn’t. What most impressed you however, was Clementine’s high-spirit throughout. She never lost hope and stayed positive the entire day. Even when Maria lost her cool for a moment and threw down our sign, she stayed happy, cheerful, and determined.
So does hitch hiking require skill? In some ways yes. You need to have a good attitude and it often comes down to managing your emotions. You just need to be willing to go with the flow. You came away from this adventure with a win. Thank you Maria and Clementine for a very memorable outing.
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?
Let’s just start from the beginning. You first landed yourself in Brussels, the self-proclaimed ugly 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
That 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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
The time has finally come for you to depart from the stony island you have called home for the past two months. The day after tomorrow, you will be boarding a plane to Charleroi, leaving behind guest-rooms in favor of couches and maybe your tent. Purchasing meals as opposed to earning them. Reliable and free internet access and all of the comfort that come with shacking up with “family” for a while.
To be perfectly honest, it feels as though your traveling experience is just beginning despite having done so many things. You have been unable to shake the feeling that you have simply been spinning your wheels, idling, for the past four months.
Perhaps it is the weather. Something about rain and cold and fireplaces make you feel like you have been hibernating. Though truthfully, you’ve had some good times here despite being soaked, frozen, and brought to death’s doorstep with illness. Let’s review:
You arrived at Sli Na Bande, an unexpected oasis nestled between a forestry and a cemetery. Here you lived in an attic where you spent your evenings eating lollipops and/or popcorn watching Walking Dead and Trueblood. You slept under 4 duvets, and awoke every morning around 10am. You shoveled poop, raked leaves, cut down a tree, sorted timber, cut timber, washed dishes, used the most dangerous tools you have ever encountered, split logs, washed dishes, went for walks, painted a mural, washed dishes, sat by the fireplace drinking tea, made shortbread, washed dishes, baked actual bread, did yoga, participated in a sweat lodge ceremony, almost succumbed to strep throat, and got chased by a donkey, among other things. You were invited to spend Christmas and New Years with the family and it was wonderful. Even thousands of miles away from home you were still able to be around loved ones.
Your first outing was also your first hitch-hiking experience. You found yourself in the back of a van with no windows that didn’t open from the inside. You followed this up with a splendid walk through Glendalough. Days later, you walked to Greystones, had fish and chips, and also caught the worst illness in recent memory. It was also raining.
You hitch hiked to Wicklow town to meet Levente. You shared a bottle of wine at a lighthouse, visited a church that had been on fire only the night before, drank your way through the town, managed to get out before dark, lost Maria’s passport, bought more wine, found Maria’s passport, and went to church the next day.
You took a road-trip around the north of Ireland and to the west. You hiked around Giant’s Causeway, got profoundly lost, listened to pop music, hiked to Sleive League, Cliffs of Moher, all together drove 1200 kilometers and saw a shit-ton of sheep, stone walls, and more rain.
An honorable mention should also go to the second time you hitch-hiked into Dublin to re-visit Judit and Susan. You got on with them so well the first time you couch surfed, they invited you to stay with them a second time before you left Ireland.
This over-night adventure went something like this: Two lifts in – the second from an off-duty charter bus- The Brazen Head Pub with money for wallpaper, 2 pints of Guinness, the outdoors store where you purchased a Kelly kettle, another pint of Guinness, smashing a bottle of champagne inside a plastic bag because the corkscrew broke, passing the champagne through a mesh strainer to get the glass out, drinking the worst champagne ever, music, snacks, Globe, finding 5 euro in change on the ground, people asking to try on your hat, people thinking you were Canadian, dancing, kissing, dancing home, candles, space heater, popcorn, Red Bull, Infected Mushroom, getting a massage by three women simultaneously, sleep, a big breakfast in the morning, storytelling, coffee, getting a lift out of Dublin by a van full of hippies, getting dropped near Bray (a mere 20 kilometers away from your destination) then NOT GETTING PICKED UP AT ALL for the rest of the journey. You walked 18+ kilometers to Angus’ house in the dark.
You have experienced incredible hospitality here. Angus’ house is amazingly warm and full of food. You have home-made curry every day and all the coffee and Darjeeling you could possibly want. You get your own room (which also happens to be the hottest room in the house) and it’s large enough to spread all of your gear on the floor for admiring whenever you please. And not to brag, but you have become rather mediocre at Snooker and darts. It will be missed.
Looking back, you did a fair amount of adventuring while you were here, though it seemed to happen at a slow pace. You know it happened slowly because you also managed to read the following books since you got to Ireland:
A Fighter’s Mind
The Tipping Point (kind of)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Survival in the Killing Fields
Letters to a Christian Nation
Everything is Illuminated
A Walk in the Woods
You have given Ireland a good run and you are ready for the next adventure (beginning with exclusive couch-surfing and getting to a place where they don’t speak English) and you are ready for it largely because Ireland (and the people in it) have prepared you. Until next time, you must say so long to your stony island.