Brew a fresh pot of coffee, you’re going to be here a while.
I wrote the majority of this from my southbound Spanish train. Unfortunately, the train did not have Wi-Fi, so I had to wait to post it until I was cozily with my host in Algeciras. I have the distinct feeling that asynchronous writing/posting schedule will be a common occurrence on my travels, but hey, it’s not like I need to be timely. In any case, I have a number of items I’d like to touch on, so let’s hop to it
Topic 1: Couchsurfing
One of the big tools I’m using on this trip is a website called Couchsurfing. Basically, it’s a hospitality program where people in cities all over the world open their homes (specifically and usually, their couches) to travelers. This allows for a number of benefits to the traveler:
- Cheaper travel (money is not supposed to be exchanged)
- More comfortable travel (knowing a single person in an unfamiliar place can make all the difference between a wonderful trip and a wonderfully miserable one)
- More cultured travel (as Couchsurfing is designed as a cultural exchange program above all else)
Having heard some recommendations for the program, I decided to try it out. And Madrid was the first place where I would actually use it was in Madrid. I was meeting up with a woman named Carolina. Having told her my travel plans, she said she would meet me at the train station in Madrid. Now, my flight arrived at 10:45pm local time. Add to that all the little pieces of time that popped up (customs, waiting for trains, riding trains, etc.), and I didn’t actually arrive until after midnight. My main thought throughout the train ride was “please be there, please be there, please be there.”
And sure enough, when I arrived, Carolina was there with her car, ready to take my tired body to her apartment. All the concern about being - for lack of a better word - ditched in a foreign country, vanished. And I got a better experience there than I could have in any hostel.
Carolina had the patience of a saint, tolerating my English and laughably weak Spanish, and was always willing to help me out. On Wednesday, she brought me to the city and let me loose when she went into her office. I then met up with her later that evening to go for drinks and tapas with her friends (also Couchsurfing hosts). As it turns out, today was her birthday (and she was still willing to host me), so we had a small, but fun, celebration. Everyone was doing their damnedest to speak English for my benefit, which was very unnecessary and very kind. On the whole, it was great.
Then again in Algeciras, I had a host who had to pick me up (albeit earlier). And despite some thoughts going through my head of “please be there, please be there”, he was in fact there. Francisco (or Paco) greeted me, and then drove me to his home on his Motorbike. That was an exhilarating experience in its own right. He then let me stay in his son’s room, showed me the AMAZING view from his balcony (get ready for pictures), and showed me about town. Again, super gracious and kind.
There is always some trepidation that can exist around something like Couchsurfing. Meeting up with a complete stranger on the basis of good faith always has its risks, but with vigilance and trusting your gut, it can be very rewarding, as it was in these two spots. If the rest are anything like this, I will definitely be looking forward to it.
Topic 2: Madrid (The City Itself)
I’ll briefly cover my thoughts on the city itself. With few exceptions, I’m not a fan of cities. I’m actually constantly being distracted from writing this while watching the Spanish countryside fly by. It’s absolutely rustic, whimsical, and gorgeous. (I would love to bike this path. Maybe next time.) On the whole, open spaces hold much more appeal to me. That said, there is a certain charm to Madrid for me, and I think it’s all the architecture. Every single building there seems important. There are statues everywhere. It all just screams “history”. And having studied classical architecture in college, I even got a little giddy here and there.
It’s also a very walkable city, which makes it good for a traveler like me. After about an hour of searching, I was able to find myself a map with all the major attractions and McDonald’s locations in the city (it was sponsored). I then realized that a compass/whistle combo item was the best pre-trip purchase I made, as I used that compass everywhere.
There were street performer everywhere; in particular, there were a lot of the kind who pretend to be statues. Once the sun went down, they got even stranger – there were men hidden behind strollers, pretending to be babies, men pretending to be lifeless heads on a table until somebody walks by, men pretending to be some kind of flamenco dancer. They all had tip jars/hats, though I questioned who would give their hard-earned money to the baby man.
Then there were the bootleg peddlers, with the wares arranged on square clothes with cords in all four corners. I witnessed the ingenuity of this design then the police drove by; one tug on the cord, and their shop was over their shoulder as they ran away.
Overall I’d say it was a fine city, principally for my interest in the history and architecture.
Topic 3: The Places I Saw
Considering I was only in Madrid for about a day and a half, I’d say I got my share of sightseeing in. My first big stop was El Museo Nacional del Prado. You could consider this the historical art museum, where they kept works from the likes of Francisco de Goya, Diego Velasquez, El Greco, and others you read about in Art History books. …Actually, those are really the only three you see consistently, but there were a lot of others.
I spent a good three hours in there, and I easily could have spent another six, had I not given up on reading the descriptions for every single piece. A couple things struck me about many of the pieces. First, the physical size of a lot of them. As a guy who markets video games, I sometimes think a 24”x36” banner is the limit of art. But there were intricately-detailed paintings in this building that, it dropped on the floor, would be larger than some San Francisco apartments. Second was the age, and the history that comes with that. You could pretty much walk into any room and say, “All of these paintings have existed since before my country was founded” (limited to the United States). It puts it all into perspective. Third, is the fact that, oh my God, that’s Goya’s painting of Saturn. Holy crap, there’s that Velasquez panting of the Royal Family. Sweet Jesus, there’s the one of the execution on May 3, 1808. There’s even the one of Velasquez painting the family with that one really ugly girl. All these paintings used in history books, in mythology books; they’re here. It was quite surreal.
I think my personal favorite part, though, was the statuary. I’m a huge sucker for Greek/Roman style statues; I squeal with delight whenever I see one. And I saw plenty. I was gushing all over. There was also this one painter I liked, with vivid colors and detailed works. I wrote his name down, but it's not accessible at the moment, so remind me to look it up later.
Afterward, I visited the Catedral de la Almudena, on the other side of town (I also walked by/through a number of other spots, though not enough to really qualify as visiting). It had all the qualities of any good cathedral – the ostentation and opulence to make you feel guilty about not using that money to help the less fortunate, and the sheer scope and impressiveness to make even the most pious person forget such feelings. I was hoping to find a priest to bless my Saint Christopher medals for me, but failing that, I just sat down and prayed for a bit.
Right next to the cathedral was the Palacio Real, which was pretty impressive, but had a line too long to even think about going in. I wish I had printed out an email we once received at work from the Spanish government saying “The King is pleased with your wise decision.” Maybe I could have used that to show that Juan Carlos and I were thick as thieves and get immediate access.
Today, I had two stops. The first was the Templo de Debod, which is an ACTUAL EGYPTIAN TEMPLE OH MY GOD LOOK THERE’S THE HYROGLYPHICS HOLY CRAP AND THEY REALLY JUST PICKED UP AND MOVED THIS PLACE FROM EGYPT TO SPAIN. Long story short, I found it to be quite interesting.
Finally, the last place I got to see before my train was the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofia, which was like the del Prado, except for modern art (Picasso and Dali being the two most prominent contributors). I think it’s because I only had an hour for it, or maybe because I’m not as keen on modern art, but I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I should have, or as much as del Prado. That said, seeing Picasso’s Guernica (again, huge) was quite a moment. It’s easily my favorite of Picasso’s pieces, and I've even used his bull on occasion myself. I wish I had seen more Dali surrealist works; I legitimately enjoy that. Maybe if/when I return, I’ll have more time for that.
There were a bunch of other places I wish I could have gone, but until I have the ability to bend time, I’ll have to be satisfied with what I was able to accomplish (admittedly, a lot). Just goes to show, no matter how much time you allow yourself to see the world, you’ll never see it all.
Topic 4: My Spanish, and my Issue with Language Barriers
When I was in high school, I was the top student in my Spanish class three years in a row. Best scores, fastest recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and better spelling than the native speakers. Not that I could translate (my father and his Bolivian visitor can attest to that), but I could engage in a slow-paced conversation. Of course, that was eight years ago, and I’ve had almost no need to use it since. My, how the arrogant little bastard fell. I was trying at every moment to use Spanish, and faltering almost everywhere. Vocabulary I’m fine with – stuff I forgot I remember pretty quickly – but I can’t string together a sentence without carefully preparing it first. I think it’s mainly because I’ve forgotten my conjugation, but it puts my speaking ability at sub-toddler level.
I try to muddle through with my interactions, and start off fine, even respectable, but as soon as they ask an unexpected question, I’m done. I either ask them to slow down or repeat their question multiple times, freeze up trying to create the sentence in my head, or just simple start speaking in English. Usually they get the hint, and begin speaking English to me. In an earlier post, my friend Chris commented that this is like the immigrant experience, and I believe it. I can only hope that they appreciate my trying.
But the issue with language barriers – my personal issue, at least – was more prevalent when I was with Carolina and friends. Their English was all actually quite good, though I often had to slow down (which, to be fair, I sometimes need to do with English speaking friends) and use much more basic words. Then, when I try to help out by switching to Spanish, I sound like I have a nail in my brain. So in either position, my use of language is limited. And therein lays the issue. Language is my greatest asset. At work, I’d get the occasional email response simply saying they enjoyed the way my email was written. I love turning phrases, using metaphors, and working with the inflection of my voice to connote hidden meanings. Take that away, and I am vulnerable. My biggest asset becomes my biggest liability.
It will be interesting to see how I deal with this in each of the places I visit. Maybe I’ll rise to the occasion –probably with 80% more gesticulation – or I’ll crumble. One thing’s for sure – I need to bone up on my Spanish before heading down to South America.
Topic 5: Fast Food and Wi-Fi
Shortly before I left, I made a joke that I should have a secondary blog dedicated to my culinary explorations (let’s call it “The Wandering Gourmand”), but that literally every post would be about me being in a Subway or KFC. Well, the joke’s on me, because in Madrid, places like KFC and McDonald’s (to my surprise, I have not seen a Subway) are actually…well, I hate to say trendy, but at the very least, sought out. Same thing with Starbucks (but hey, that’s a given) and Burger King. They’re big, clean, have some sort of café service, and most importantly, have Wi-Fi.
Chances are, every time I’ve checked an email or hopped on Facebook in the last two days, it’s been at a fast food joint. I may or may not be eating (aside from Starbucks, you can use the Wi-Fi with no purchase), but I’m in the vicinity. What can I say; it’s a draw when you don’t want to pay through the nose for a roaming data plan.
Also, to discuss something every traveler discusses, but it’s always interesting seeing the different products that exist in different countries. I saw an ad for Burger King that showed criss-cut fries. I was legit tempted before remembering that it’s Burger King. My favorite non-US product – Fruit Frappuccino’s at Starbucks. I had a mango/passion fruit one, and it was damned good. If Mr. Starbuck is reading this right now, please bring that over stateside!
Topic 6: Horse Meat
In Madrid, they had a tapas bar that served horse meat croquettes. I know I said I wanted to try new foods, but I don’t approve of this one. :(
Topic 7: The Train Ride Down to Algeciras
This is actually a bit of an addition that came to mind after I finished the rest of this post. As I was mentioning before, the train ride down to Algeciras was beautiful. I was a little perturbed that it cost 75 Euro, but part of that was my fault for not booking way in advance (and I had no reason not to). Still, the views more than made up for it. I cannot begin to describe all the amazing things.
Open fields. Mountains. Fast-moving clouds. Rivers. Abandoned farmhouses. Running horses. Grazing cows. Goats and sheep walking, complete with shepherds. Rays of sunlight. Giant stork nests at the top of radio towers. Green, green everywhere. The list goes on and on. I could spend a month just walking or biking down and taking it all in.
The thing was, this is really something you have to just see. It’s really difficult to capture in pictures. Aside from the obvious issues of motion blur – which my camera dealt with like a pro – there is the basic issue of timing. Each thing I saw was a fleeting image. In the time it took to turn on my camera – a half-second maybe – it’s a train-length behind you. Even if it’s far enough in the distance to stay in view, normally the moment you find that perfect shot, a hill gets in the way and obstructs your view. I did manage to get some great pictures (again, keep an eye out for them), but after a while, it felt like a hassle to capture those moments, so I decided just to let my eyes be the camera and enjoy them as you really should.
Topic 8: No Business Like Sew Business
I had to buy a needle and thread yesterday (tricky when you don’t have any familiarity with the local stores). Why? Because when I got to Carolina’s apartment on Tuesday night, there was a small hole in my day pack near the zipper. On the first day of my trip. True, I’d used the backpack before, but not that much. So, I took the industrious approach and stitched it back together. I’m hoping I did so in time, because I’d hate to do this nine times more. More than that, I hope this was a fluke, and not indicative to the overall hardiness of my backpack.
On the bright side, at least now I have some extra needles and thread in case to need to suture anything.
Topic 9: Where I Actually End This Goddamn Post
So, that was Madrid (and a bit on Algeciras and the path between) in the world’s largest nutshell. I’m sure I could have split this into multiple posts, and considered doing so, but, eh.