Archive for the 'Spain' Category
I had one goal – one seemingly simple goal — for Saturday: to add new blog posts and photos to our website. We started the day at the front desk of the hostel, and learned that the computers are unavailable on the weekends. Is there anywhere near with WiFi available, we asked? Maybe at the Vasco de Gama Mall (this seafaring hero is so beloved that they even named a shopping center after him), on “the last floor”, where the restaurants are at, we were told.
We hiked a mile down the road with our computer, roasting and basting ourselves with sweat in the midday sun. When we arrived at the mall, we rode the escalators to the top floor, home to the equivalent of a food court, where you can lunch on anything from McDonald’s (always the longest line) to Argentine parrilla. We didn’t see any signs for WiFi, and wondered if this was what he meant by the last floor. We proceeded up to the next floor, a sort of loft area, with fancier restaurants. Was this the last/top floor? But we saw no signs for WiFi, so we went back down the escalators to look for an information booth, and on our way spotted a small Internet kiosk. We could connect to the Internet, but they couldn’t access our USB drive.
At the information booth we learned that there was WiFi in the mall, but that we’d have to “talk to the Clix people.” The woman at the booth motioned towards another kiosk, emblazoned with black and hot pink Xs. Through our sorry attempts at Portuguese, we learned that we’d have to buy some sort of a device at another store before we could set up a subscription with Clix before we could use the WiFi at the mall.
We walked out of the mall, defeated, and stumbled upon another Internet cafe. They, too, did not have WiFi access, nor could they read our USB card. We wandered back out the other side of the mall, stopping at another informational booth. Here, we learned that there was free, public Internet access available at the science center down the road. Bingo!
We found out way towards the modern (and air conditioned) space, which boasted a corral of new Apple computers. And yes, we could transfer our files from the USB card. For free! We ran into some major snags with uploading photos, so only managed to get the posts up.
It took us all day to learn what should have been obvious from the beginning: that any expectations we had about how something functions at home (in this case, WiFi) doesn’t necessarily translate to another culture. We emerged eight hours after our day began, able to accomplish only half of what we had set out to do.
This seems to be par for the course: everything takes twice as long to do half as much as you’d like. Most things we set out to do in a day – from figuring out how to buy a bus ticket to asking for directions to the procurement of food – take eight times longer than we think it will. Even making Top Ramen, the world’s simplest meal, is a major feat. Everything is a multistep process, and we rarely get it right the first time. This is taking some getting used to. We take our habits and routines, our basic orientation to our lives and culture, and our easy access to just about everything for granted. There are times when I just want to sit down and cry, wanting only for the simplest thing to be easy. This has been a week of calibration, of slowly learning to set my expectations low. “Going with the flow” sounds easy in theory. But it’s more complex than just learning to take things as they come. It’s about accepting the fact that everything will take longer and be harder than you think – anything additional is a bonus.No comments
Wednesday was our third wedding anniversary. For years we celebrated by trying to do something special, which always backfired. One year we attempted to have a picnic atop Mt. Rainier and were chased down by deer flies and a bug I’ve only seen the likes of in the darkest forests of Central America. Another year we went to Port Townsend and stayed at the weirdest bed and breakfast that ever saw the light of day. We finally decided to stop celebrating our anniversary with fanfare after our experience two years ago, when we spent over $100 on a meal that left us famished. This year was going to be different. This year we were going to be in Portugal on our round-the-world journey!
Correction: we would be traveling to Portugal on our anniversary, which should have had disaster written all over it. But our talisman was the carrier we chose to make the journey: Easy Jet. How hard could a trip be on Easy Jet? I was eager to try this low-cost carrier, which promised bargain basement prices to a variety of European locales. We set off for the airport at 11:15 am to make our 1:30 pm flight. This time around, we had much greater success navigating the Madrid subway system; I was beginning to feel like a real Madrileno.
When we arrived at the airport at 12:15, the Easy Jet line stretched on for what seemed like miles. I soon realized that Easy Jet is the Southwest Airlines of Europe: you get what you pay for. Check-in was due to close at 12:50, and as we inched our way towards the front of the line, I watched, panicked, as the clock struck 12:48. I seemed to be the only person in line concerned. “We’re never going to make it,” I told Maikael. ”We’ll be fine,” he said. “Trust me.” I tried my best to be cool as a cucumber, but failed miserably. We made it to the front of the line in the nick of time and raced through security, reaching the gate at 1:05, just a few minutes after boarding was to commence. But the door to the gate was closed, and there was no gate agent. So, we waited.
By 1:30, the situation remained the same. A line formed, as if creating a queue might nudge the cosmos into action. The passengers, with passports from as far away from New Zealand, shifted back and forth on the balls of their feet. We waited some more. A flight to Gothenburg came and went. We waited. I began checking the reader board. At 1:30 it estimated the flight would leave at 1:35. At 1:35, 1:40. And so it updated in 5 minute increments until 2pm. The line deflated. Then, a representative from the airline approached the desk, at which point spontaneous applause broke out in the terminal, and the line reformed faster than I’ve ever seen in my life. She began flashing cards, written in large, orange, bubbly font, Easy Jet’s signature graphic. “SA.” She displayed the card like Vanna White. Then, “A.” “Groupo A,” she said, making a sweeping gesture in front of her. Passengers, like a herd of cattle, milled in front of her. She flashed a card marked “B,” our group, to which we fell into line behind her like soldiers. We stood around for five minutes. We thought maybe we had missed some important detail, so we asked the guy next to us, whose passport read “Espana” if there was something more we should be doing. “No,” he said, “this is weird.” Finally, another announcement in Spanish. “The flight has been delayed another 35 minutes. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.” The line crumbled.
I’m not sure what the point of assembling us was, but it must have made everyone hungry, because a group filed en masse to the cafeteria (the neighboring Robot Cafe was, sadly, closed). We munched on a jamon y queso sandwich. We waited. People circled the electronic reader board, looking spectral. “See,” said Maikael, “I said you didn’t have anything to worry about.” He was right. At 3:00 pm we went through the card charade again. More cheering. We boarded the plane, at which time we were given a technically impressive description of the hold up, something to do with computer problems and having to ship a part from the UK. The flight attendants passed through three times with their head count clickers, like ushers at a movie theatre, which I thought was a little odd. Finally, a voice crackled over the loudspeaker. “Excuse me, ladies and gentleman. We have another leetle probleam.” The flight manifest listed 120 passengers, but there were 122 aboard the plane. We couldn’t leave until things were resolved. “Ladies and gentleman, is everyone on board going to Lisboa today?” “I’m beginning to think not!” shouted the guy behind us, which signaled a wave of laughter through the plane. We waited another 30 minutes. Turns out, it was another computer problem. The wheels began moving at 4:30, nearly three hours behind schedule for a one-hour flight.
We arrived at the airport and, after one snafu, caught the correct bus to our hostel. It was rush hour, and the bus was packed. I was sweaty, and hot, and tired, and straddled my backpack amongst the crush of passengers. The woman next to me offered the space above her for my luggage. It was a small gesture, totally in the spirit of the kindness of strangers, but I just about cried with happiness: it was exactly what I needed in that moment. We checked in, dumped our bags, and I couldn’t help but grin. It was, by most accounts, a miserable day. But it was the happiest I had been since starting this trip three days ago. My life has shifted towards small victories. My friend, Sarah, had a baby last year, and I remember her telling me that the days she got to take a shower and make it out of the house to the grocery store was a big deal. That’s exactly how I feel: the only difference is that I’m learning to mother an eight-month trip. Getting from Madrid to Lisbon – and all the steps in between — felt like a major success. It was my tinge of reassurance that maybe I can really do this.
After showering, we decided to walk down to the Parque das Nascoes, which was developed for Expo ’98. We had no idea this gorgeous strip of waterfront property was in our backyard for the next week. We walked along the Tejo River, taking in the cloudless blue sky and the palms fringed with sunlight. We stopped at a waterfront restaurant for dinner and ordered a bottle of $12 Vinho da Casa – the house wine, which happened to be Portugese. We watched the moon scoop out of the sky, casting a soft beam of light over the water.
We didn’t give each other gifts of leather or glass this year., the tradition for third anniversaries But it was best anniversary I can ever remember; it was the perfect end to a perfect day.No comments
When I took my first Spanish class in the 10th grade at Kent-Meridian High School, most of our textbook referenced Spain. For years I didn’t have a reference of the Spanish-speaking world beyond the country. I remember watching a video about Semana Santa, mesmerized, thinking, “I want to go there someday.” One of the first things you learn in any language class is cultural customs surrounding food. I was completely enthralled by the idea that Spaniards indulged in churros y chocolate for breakfast. This was better than Cocoa-Puffs. This was the equivalent of dessert for breakfast.
I’ve waited 15 years to order churros y chocolate in Spain; in fact, it was the only thing on my to-do list today. We asked our host for a recommendation, and he pointed us towards Chocolateria San Agustin, which specializes in typical Spanish-style churros y chocolate. The last time I had churros y chocolate was in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, at Christmas, late at night, just after we had watched the posadas parade down the street. If you’ve never eaten a churro beyond Disneyland or your high school cafeteria, you’re in for a treat. A proper churro is as thin as your thumb, with a crispy outside and a chewy inside. They are light, buttery, and delicious. Over the years, I’ve also become a fan of chocolate, thanks to The Thomas Family. Every Christmas morning, Maikael’s mom makes Mexican hot chocolate. It’s richer and creamier than its American counterpart, with a hit of cinnamon.
As we settled into the lovely, shaded alley and confidently ordered churros y chocolate, this is what we were expecting. A few moments later our churros were delivered alongside a large cup of melted chocolate. Maikael and I exchanged what is now becoming the typical eyebrow raise of confusion. I tentatively dipped a churro into the dark, molten liquid, which was immediately met with resistance. The consistency was somewhere between motor oil and quicksand. “It’s like they melted down a bunch of Hershey chocolates and put it in a cup,” Maikael said. The chocolate was delicious – it just wasn’t what we were expecting. That is the thing about traveling: you enter into situation with an expectation of what it will be, based on a similar experience, and are always shocked when it turns out differently.
Yesterday, when we went to lunch, we could barely decipher the menu, despite the fact that we both speak Spanish. Phrases like habitas buenas escaped me. “Doesn’t that mean ‘good habits’?” I asked. In Spain, it’s a mixture of vegetables. I knew to avoid lenguado, which I assumed was a tongue, but appeared to be a strip of cod-looking fish. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I make it a point to learn culinary-related words. But I realized today that most of my references come from Latin American cuisine, the base of most of my experience in the Spanish-speaking world. I wonder if it will be easier in a place like Jordan, for which I have no cultural familiarity – what is there to be surprised about when you have no expectations?
We studied the other cafe-goers, who all seemed to be happily gulping down their chocolate. The Spanish grandpa behind us sipped eagerly from his cup, hands tottering, dots of chocolate lining his upper lip. We tried to spoon some down our throats, but couldn’t swallow the viscous chocolate. We left our cups half full, which prompted the waitress to ask, “You didn’t like it?” “No,” we said, “it was just different than we expected.”3 comments
As I was waiting for our flight to Spain at Chicago O’Hare, I went to use the restroom. When I went to wash my hands, an older Indian woman, dressed in a flowing peach sari, was trying to wash her hands in the basin next to mine. She carefully studied my motions, and it soon became clear that she had never encountered an automated sink. I turned to use the towel dispenser, and she did the same. As the water in her sink kept flowing she looked panicked. She gave me a look, the equivalent of a shrug, that said, “How the hell do I turn this thing off?” I smiled and made “okay” gestures with my fingers. But the message got lost in translation, and she banged on the metal spout with her fist, hoping that would do the trick. Finally it turned off by itself, and I smiled, reassuringly trying to say, “See, it’s okay!” Inside, I was thinking, “That is going to be me soon.”
Little did I know that soon would come in a matter of hours. We arrived Madrid at 8:15 am, bleary- eyed and exhausted, having slept little on the plane. After clearing customs and collecting our luggage, we began the great debate of how best to get to our hostel. We had been warned repeatedly about pickpockets and gitanos running rampant on the Metro, and wanted to make sure our belongings were secure. First, we made the executive decision to carry our backpacks by their handles rather than the straps, so as to appear less vulnerable. I slung my daypack awkwardly over my shoulder, and Maikael strapped his to his frontside. The result was two Quasimoto-like figures ambling through the underbelly of Madrid, looking more vulnerable than ever.
Second, we decided to give my money belt its maiden voyage. I crammed the belt with passports, cash, and credit cards, and within minutes my protruding paunch was sagging. By the time we reached our destination, it was somewhere towards the bottom of my thighs. Maikael slung his backpack atop his shoulder, as if he were carrying a bag of coffee beans. I finally stopped halfway through a Metro tunnel and strapped on my backpack properly. “We’ll get better at this,” we said.
We emerged from the Metro, after wrestling with the ticketing machine, sweaty and tired. We arrived at the Hostal Alaska, relieved that our room was ready for check-in so early in the day, and Maikael removed his pack. His chest was ringed by a bullseye of sweat from hugging the daypack to his chest. On a normal vacation, I’d say, “Big deal. We’ll throw it in the laundry when we get home in two weeks.” But today my mind began calculating the complicated equation between shirts owned, opportunities for laundry, and days on the road. We are fortunate enough to have a bathtub in our room, so I immediately plunged all of our dirty clothes in the soapy water and decided to do a load of laundry. When I went to hang up our laundry line – which came highly recommended for its versatile design – I discovered that there was nowhere in our room to hang the now-sopping laundry (note to self: assess laundry line situation before submerging clothes). “We’ll get better at this,” we said.
After a brief nap and shower we went to a lunch spot that was recommended by our hostel. We ordered from the menu del dia, typical midday fare in the Spanish-speaking world, which provides a choice of one of three primero and segundo platos, plus “1/2 of wine” and dessert, all for 10 euros. The waitress brought two bottles of wine, both about ½ full, and we waited for her to pour us each a ½ glass. When she left we raised our eyebrows at each other. “Does this mean we get an entire ½ bottle each?” We glanced around to make sure there hadn’t been some mistake. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve stumbled tipsy out of a restaurant into the midday sun.
It took only one day to determine that we might need to buy a strap for our backpacks for certain situations; that our laundry situation needs some reevaluating; and that the shoes I bought are proving to be disappointing. It’s a reminder that we’ll hardly ever get it right on the first time on this journey, despite our planning and best efforts. We’ll get better at this.
Despite an exhausting and difficult day of feeling like babies beginning to walk, I am writing this post with the balcony doors propped open, as Madrilenos pour out into the waning daylight, laughter rising from the cafe below. I can even hear the strains of an accordion playing an eclectic repertoire of “Happy Birthday,” “When the Saints Come Marching In,” “Those Were the Days My Friends,” and, curiously enough, “Jingle Bells.” Could I be in any more of a quintessential Spanish scene?
Tomorrow is another day. Hopefully with better shoes.
Figuring out accomodations is always an adventure in and of itself. Doug Lansky, who wrote our round-the-world guide, is the person I want to be. Through the travel philosophy espoused in the book, he comes across as breezy and fun, a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinda guy who rolls with the punches and doesn’t let much get him down. For example, here’s his system for choosing accomodations: “If I’m tired out or staying a bit longer, I’ll pick a place further from the center. If I’m just staying a day or two and feeling fresh, I’ll go for the best rated of the flea traps in the center. If there are a few decent choices in these categories, I’ll typically go for the ones that are the easiest to get to. But, whatever the case, I won’t spend more than five or ten minutes deciding.” And he does this all on the bus ride into town.
I like this philosophy. I really do. It’s simple, pragmatic, and doesn’t waste a lot of time. But living it is an entirely different matter. As I’ve written here before in these pages, I am a planner who spends entirely too much time investigating my lodging options. For the past week I’ve been tirelessly researching budget accomodations in Madrid, where we will spend all of 48 hours. My system looks something like this: cross-reference Trip Advisor with Lonely Planet with the hostel’s website. Take the square root of the photos, multiplied by the top three most important features, then divide by the arc tangent of proximity to public transportation. Double check with your gut.
In the end I went with Hostal Alaska; the name seemed like a good omen for the start of the trip.
Our week in Lisbon will be spent at one of five Hostelling International (HI) hostels scattered throughout the city. For 38 Euros we will have a private room with bathroom, laundry facilities, WiFi access, and breakfast. Neither of us has stayed at a hostel before. We never did the backpack-through-Europe thing after college: Maikael started graduate school and I went to work. I feel like I’ve missed out on some pivotal cultural experience; that anyone staying in one of these places who’s over the age of 22 will be well-schooled in the ways of the hostel. I’ve heard that hostels vary dramatically, even within a given city: did I pick the “good one,” I ask myself?
After leaving Lisbon we’ll spend a week making our way north to Porto, where we’ll take our chances at finding accomodations as we go. While I’m trying to channel the reassuring spirit of Doug Lansky, this plan makes me nervous. I know we’ll find something — there’s always something. But I hope not to repeat our experience in Sterling, Scotland, last March, where we spent what felt like hours driving over country roads looking for budget digs, while my stomach grumbled audibly (any of you who know my eating habits can imagine the scene that ensued). When these moments happen — and I know they will — I hope Mr. Lansky whispers his infinite words of wisdom in my ear.
On Friday we called the Hotel Peninsular in Porto to reserve our room, which is where we’ll spend the last week of our time in Portugal and use it as a base to explore the northern region via day trips. We had originally planned on staying at the hostel in town, which the Lonely Planet describes as “the crown jewel of Portugese hostels.” Perched high on a cliff overlooking the water, this newer hostel boasts modern facilities and sweeping vistas. The only problem? It’s a 4 km/30 minute bus ride from town. In the end we booked something in the city center which, of course, I spent way too much time researching. We didn’t have to pay in advance, though, which provides more flexibility should our plans change (the hostels have all required advanced payment thus far). Iselda at Hotel Peninsular said we just had to call if plans changed. We asked her if they had Internet access, something most hostels have. “No. But we will next week when it’s fixed.”
Doug Lansky assures me that we will develop our own system for finding accomodations. I know once we hit the road that we won’t have the time to thoroughly investigate options. One of my goals for this trip has been to become a better, more flexible traveler. I don’t think I’ll have much of a choice!1 comment
Last week my Little Sister asked me what car we would be taking around the world. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I mean, which of your two cars are you going to drive around the world?” she responded. I explained that we would be leaving both of our cars parked at home, and that you couldn’t exactly drive around the world (unless, of course, you shipped your car). “Well, then how are you going to get there?” she asked. When I told her we were going to fly, she exclaimed, “You’re going to fly around the whole world?!”
This, to me, didn’t seem to be any astonishing feat. Planes have become the Greyhounds of the skies, shiny canisters that propel masses of people around the world on a daily basis. I am, in fact, bummed that we are taking such a generic form of transportation for the majority of the trip. Our round-the-world planning guide dedicates a whole chapter to promoting alternative forms of transportation, such as the taking a felucca down the Nile in Egypt. When in Rome do as the Romans do, right?
Our round-the-world tickets gets us from Albuquerque to Madrid, but so as to save one of our 20 legs, we are getting ourselves from Madrid to Portugal and back. The question was, how would we do it? I was eager to take the train from Madrid to Lisbon, the train being the ultimate European experience. I imagined sipping sangria in my sleeper car, reading Don Quixote or some heady work of classic fiction, while the Spanish countryside streaked by in shades of ochre. I would munch on churros y chocolate in the dining car, making fast friends with my fellow travelers and talking animatedly in Spanish with an unexpected degree of fluency. This fantasy came to a grinding halt when I discovered that the train was an overnight route — common in Europe. The landscape would be nothing but darkness, and we couldn’t afford the tickets that included meals. A basic sleeper car without a shower would run us $170 per person.
Next we investigated driving. I could still have my vibrant countryside, only this time I could get out to admire Spanish hamlets and wave hello to the myriad olive farmers I would inevitably pass on the road. The daily rental fee was only $20 — but the cost of taking a car over an international border on a one-way trip added an additional $600 to the fare.
So, after staying two nights in Madrid, we will be on an Easy Jet flight to Lisbon on July 16 for the ridiculously low price of $50 per person. The taxes cost more than the ticket itself. While it’s not the romantic train experience I had always envisioned, I will be privy to another quintessential European experience: bargain basement airfares. There is incredible competition in this market, driving tickets prices down to nearly nothing. Airlines such as Easy Jet and Ryan Air (whom we will fly from Porto to Madrid with) cater to the weekend traveler; as such, they gouge you on extravagent extras like checking one bag per person. Seriously: it will be more expensive to send our luggage than ourselves from Porto to Madrid.
Not all trains are created equal. After spending a week in Libson we will meander our way north up the coastline for two weeks, taking a series of inexpensive trains and busses that link most Portugese cities. I may have my European rail experience yet.No comments