My face was inches away from being punched on a city street in Málaga. I was passing a small woman on a narrow sidewalk with my luggage in tow when she suddenly shuffled toward me with her fist raised, muttering something threatening from her toothless mouth. I continued on to my hostel after a moment of staring at her in disbelief.
That evening I laid on one of the big black rocks facing the ocean and realized that it was my last day in Spain. Before I knew it morning came, and I was on a Delta flight soaring across the Atlantic into the egg white clouds. I was finally going home.
I look up and stare at the tangled branches of fruit trees hanging above my face, my body cradled by a hammock in a patch of shade. Above the trees is the sky, an unreal pastel blue. I am somewhere near the town of Órgiva, somewhere in the region of Granada, Spain. If I just concentrate on listening I can hear the stuttering, repetitive sounds of the birds and insects overlapping one another. Some are rapid, guttural or more consistent than others. One sounds like a woman laughing.
I am working for a man whose family has been living on this organic farm for more than one hundred years. His name is Joaquin. He speaks at the pace of a full speed motorboat and uses big, jerking hand gestures. If it weren’t for this fact, I wouldn’t be learning so much Spanish. He is very friendly and yet distinctly direct, the type that will point at my farmer’s tan after I’ve spent a day clearing the tomato fields in the sun and bluntly say, “que feo, amiga” (meaning, “this is ugly, my friend”).
Myself and one other worker, Per, from Sweden, are currently the only WWOOFers living and working here. We start work around eight in the morning and stop around one or two for lunch when the sun is harsh and makes work much harder than it actually is. We rest until the sunlight melts into the mountaintops before resuming our duties for a couple more hours, when the air is cooler on the skin.
The tomato fields have required the most work. Overtaken by massive weeds and grass twice their size, Per and I have spent many hours clearing the rows of tomato plants for irrigation so they can be watered.
There are of course other tasks, too: scaling trees and ducking plants to pick fruits and vegetables, feeding the animals, cleaning up around the casas for expected ecotourists, etc. Most everything is done in a sustainable manner. All organic waste (dead weeds, rotten fruits and vegetables, plant-based scraps, bread) is fed to the animals, each of whom contribute to the functionality of the farm. There are peacocks that scavenge and keep things clean. The dogs keep away the foxes and coyotes at night. There are goats for milk and chickens for fresh eggs.
There are several casas (houses) around the farm. At the end of the row of casas is the barbacoa, where large meals like rich pisto are prepared for the family, and ripe, farm-picked fruits and vegetables are stored in buckets and boxes. There are shelves with jars of peppers that have been soaking in natural oil and salt for at least one year. Preservatives are never used.
(pisto, an Andalucian dish)
Fresh wine is produced from the grapes, and fresh olive oil from the olives. Plums, strawberries, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic, cucumber, potatoes, onions, apples, oranges, and brevas (figs) are all grown without pesticides.
(a cracked-open almond fresh from the tree)
(brevas, or figs)
Needless to say we eat very well, and Per and I are always being told “come come” (‘eat eat’). Life here is peaceful. Wake up, work, eat, rest the afternoon away playing music or reading, work again at dusk, cook dinner, and eat dinner together on the terrace in the light of the moon.
Still, life here wasn’t always this easy and there are comforts here that did not exist before. There are those in the family who have spent their entire life working the farm and are still here to remind us of this. They have rarely left or been outside of Andalucia in their entire lives.
Per and I decided on our weekend off to take a trip to see the Alhambra in Granada. We stayed the night at a cheap hostel in the city, and took an early bus to the site the next morning.
With nothing better to do, we tried to hitchhike by the freeway entrance pointed back toward the Sierra Nevada mountains. Maria had been right when she said people in Spain are unlikely to pick up hitchhikers. I thumbed for twenty minutes or more against the heavy flow of traffic with no success. Heads turned, countless drivers and passengers gazed our direction, some stared, but no one stopped. After several hours we decided to sleep on some benches in a residential area to save money. But nighttime in Granada became surprisingly cold and it was hard to sleep soundly on the stiff wooden benches. By around 5 a.m. we were trekking across town to sleep in the stuffy bus station until our morning bus arrived.
We are in the middle of nowhere. At nighttime I lie on the roof of our casa, the “workers” casa, and fall asleep under fresh mountain air and the patchwork of stars against the black night. During the afternoon, instead of resting, Per and I have taken the spare bikes to the nearest town, a small cluster of plaster white buildings down the road from the farm, for coffee. To get there we cut through the air on our bikes, surrounded by the brown mountains as we pass trees, rocks and giant aloe vera plants down the two-lane road at the speed of cars.
Joaquin drives me down that same road, in the opposite direction, to Órgiva the morning I leave the farm. We swoosh through the mountains, the dusty van leaning into the curves of the road and the fresh Andalucian air blasting through the rolled down windows. It is just us and the jagged mountains traced in black shadows by the sun, and the occasional passing car. It’s rare to find someone who loves their work as much as him. “I love to work everyday. Saturday, Sunday, there is always work to do,” he tells me as we rollercoaster along the windy road. Indeed, there is always something to be done. But when we arrive in Órgiva he still manages to stop at a distant relative’s restaurant. He buys me one last breakfast of toast with tomato and oil before giving me a peck on each cheek and dropping me off on the sidewalk to wait for a bus to Málaga. I know he will finally slow down tonight, like he always does as the sun is going down. Around 10 he and Per will sit on the terrace facing the sky, eating dinner and drinking cold cervezas topped with Fanta.
It is another six to eight hour bus ride to Sevilla from Madrid. I am ecstatic when I get to my hostel in Sevilla because it is situated in the historical heart of the city, on Mateos Gagos just a short walk away from the infamous Catedral de Sevilla.
Thanks to my broken Spanish, I already made a friend on my first night here. I just finished soaking up the last bits of chickpeas and spinach with the bread I ordered at a tapa bar when I said to the man behind the counter, “perdon, necessita pagar.” The man seated next to me turned to ask me politely in Spanish where I was from. “California,” I answered back, and then asked why. You don’t hear people in Spanish say that they ‘need’ to pay, he told me with a smile, because ‘need’ in Spanish is interpreted as needing for the sake of survival. His name was Rafa, and he bought me a beer.
The next day I meet Maria next to the Torre del Orro along the river, and our adventures begin. This is an opportunity to spend time with her in her country, and she hasn’t yet seen Sevilla. Couchsurfing in Spain, or in Andalucia anyway, is much more difficult to accomplish than it has been in Germany, London or Ireland. So we’ve ended up booking more nights at either the Sevilla Inn Backpackers or its nearby sister hostel Traveler’s Inn. The location is perfect anyway. We are staying in Barrio Santa Cruz, the ‘Judería’ (old Jewish quarter), where the narrow streets weave into one another and you really have to make an effort not to lose your way. Many of the streets have stories or myths behind their name. There is so much history here, and the city heavily reflects the influences of the Romans, Jews and Moors.
(Torre del Orro)
(outside of the home of the famous Spanish poet Luis Cernuda)
(inside Parque de María Luisa)
(beneath the Alcázar)
One night, walking aimlessly in the streets sharing a bottle of wine, we heard traditional Spanish music. We followed the music into a bar where three gypsy musicians were — a singer, a guitarist and a cajón player. It was a birthday party, but the bartender told us we could stay. Our plan was to sleep in the garden to save some money that night. We had the wine to keep us entertained already, but the birthday party was fun. We were being offered food and the musicians were asking what songs we wanted to hear. One beer and then two more. When the music stopped our heads were dizzy with drink, so we went outside to find our bottle tucked away in the dark windowsill and continued on into the night.
One hot afternoon we went to the gardens to eat our lunch of fresh meloncotons (peaches) and jelly sandwiches. We were alone. Down the path, past the fruit trees and the fountain, we found a mysterious lone structure. It was tall and Mediterranean-looking, with a hollowed, round center shielded by layers of hanging black beads. It was much cooler when we stepped inside, and even cooler when we sat cross-legged on the tile floor. We ate our lunch there, and then laid our heads on our packs and slept through the hottest time of the afternoon, shaded from the sun.
Summer nights in Sevilla are warm and perfect, especially on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. We walk our dinner up a few flights of stairs to the top of the hostel and admire the sky. On the occasions that we indulge in a tapa meal, we eat well as two traveling vegans, sharing fresh gazpacho, Spanish olives, cooked mushrooms, chickpeas mixed with spinach and fried potatoes.
One night we decided to watch flamenco. We walked up a street and took a flight of stairs above the blues bar. With each step the air got warmer, and at the top we walked into a stuffy, small room packed with rows of chairs and sweaty people. It was this night that I learned the contagion of flamenco. It starts with the clapping of the hands — the first half of the percussion. Then comes the plucking of the guitar strings, carrying the rhythm of the song. Then the voice comes in, riding the melody of the guitar, sung from the core with such passionate conviction it makes your heart hurt. And finally, the dancer enters. Fast, fast feet and legs, the other half of the percussion, that convulsively stomp as the heels pick up speed. The dancer remain tall and erect all the while, until he or she bends their perfectly chiseled body into a twirl. Swift arms and arched wrists, with hands that snap, snap and clap. And then it’s over, and the dancer bends graciously at the waist to applause, soaked in sweat.
The entire country of Spain is going wild over its victory by the time I reach my hostel — the Spanish football team has just won the World Cup for the first time in its final match against Holland. My hostel, the H Welcome Hostel, is far from the action, planted in the middle of the industrial district south of Madrid. Still, we hear celebratory car horns beeping outside the open doors, and sometime after midnight guests with painted red and yellow faces wearing the Spanish flag begin trickling into the lobby.
The city is a transition point; I am waiting to meet my Spanish friend Maria in Sevilla. So I’ve spent the past two days soaked in summer sweat walking the hilly backsides of Madrid aimlessly, stopping to admire street art and take photos of anything unique.
(ars longa, vita brevis: “art is long, life is short” in Latin)
Both occasions I stop to eat in a cafeteria people crowd around the bar to devour tapas. The news on the television repeats the same scenes of Spain’s football players streaking down the football field, jumping on top of each other and waving their trophy in the air victoriously, followed by cuts of fans in Malaga, Granada, Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla dancing and singing in the streets.
In the past four hours I have encountered overwhelming amounts of kindness. Although Maria is not there, her family granted me an invitation to stay in their home on my last night in the city. I had to travel to a town outside of Madrid to get there. It was only with the help of a small elderly Spanish woman who saw the panic on my face outside the metro around midnight that I ever managed to make it. She asked me if I needed help, and listened as I explained in broken Spanish that my bus was nowhere to be found. She grabbed my guitar and told me to follow her. We walked beneath the station to where there were lines of additional bus terminals that I didn’t realize existed. She stopped a worker to ask where my bus was, and had him take us directly there. I thanked her profusely.
I must have looked like a pathetic sight by the time Maria’s father met me at the bus station and walked me back to their home. There was a vegetarian dinner on the table that he and his wife had left for me, and I did my best to describe my evening in Spanish as they sat at the table with me. I had a short but deep sleep in Maria’s room. Her mother walked me to the train station the following afternoon and waited with me for my next train, although we resorted to sitting in silence because she couldn’t understand any of the stupid things I tried to say in Spanish.
I spent another day and night on the Baltic Sea on a ferry ride back to Germany from Helsinki.
When I arrived to my couchsurfing host’s flat in Rostock it was around midnight, but she and her roommate still made it a point to take me on a small tour of the city the next morning before I headed to Frankfurt in the afternoon.
(outside of Universität Rostock)
(inside Saint Marien Church)
(famous astronomical clock inside Saint Marien Church)
The car ride to Frankfurt was silent except for short spells of bizarre electro music and terrible radio songs. I was sharing the car with two men and a girl my age, all of who could speak German, but had little to say to each other. I met my couchsurfing host in a beer garden in Frankfurt that night to watch the final football match between Germany and Uruguay. Germany won third place in the World Cup.
Two years had passed since I’d last seen my friend Henna. She picked me up in her grandfather’s car at the Vuosaari Harbour and drove me back to her place. She lives in a charming flat just outside the city surrounded by trees, a short walk away from a small lake. A bit further lies the beach and the metro station into the city.
(Port of Helsinki)
Everyone gets crazy during the summers in Finland, she told me, because it always seems like ages since the one before it. The winters are cold and dark, with as little as an hour of sunlight in one day. In contrast, the summer days are drenched in sunlight — the sun only begins to set around 11 or 12 pm. Even then, it never gets completely dark, and the sun starts to rise again sometime between 2 or 3 in the morning. Thus, the week was spent enjoying the hot summer days like the rest of the Finnish.
Henna showed me the weekly flea market along the Helsinki harbor and treated me to a traditional Finnish meal from one of the many food stands there. We also bought fresh strawberries.
Helsinki is surrounded by small islands. Suomenlinna is an island-town with at least 800 permanent inhabitants, also housing the maritime fortress Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Suomenlinna takes about 15 minutes to access from the Helsinki dock by ferry, and the cost is comparable to local bus fare.
Seurasaari is another island, accessible from the centre of Helsinki by bridge, beyond which lies preserved traditional Finnish houses and structures dating between the 18th and 20th centuries.
If you drive at a steady speed of 120 to145 kilometers per hour, which is around 80 to 95 miles per hour, you can make the trip from Munich to Rostock in about eight hours, I discovered. I took the trip with two middle-aged men I found on the German carpooling site mitfahrgelegenheit.de. The driver, the younger one who could speak English, would interrupt the older one, who would speak to him in German for twenty-plus minutes at a time, to point out places we passed, like Ingolstadt where Audis are built, or the city of Bitterfeld, which used to smell like shit because of all the phosphorous produced from the factories.
He said he is a soldier and teacher. All German men spend at least nine months in the military, he explained, and he spent seven of his in Afghanistan in 2008. He lost two of his best friends there, and is still trying to cope with the fact he killed a boy not older than 16 in combat. It’s not that he has nightmares, he said. It’s simply the memories he wants to forget when he’s sitting in the garden alone, approaching someone wearing a turban while he’s shopping, or hearing on the news that another eight soldiers died. The only one who understands him is his brother, he said, who fought in the Yugoslavian war.
From Rostock I boarded the Tallink Superfast 8 ferry for a 2 a.m. departure to Helsinki, Finland. Below the cabins, shops, restaurant, lounge and reception, are two windowless “conference rooms” with “airseats” on the 6th floor. This is where the passengers who don’t pay for cabins sleep. The trip takes around 24 hours, which means two nights spent sleeping in one of the rooms with the other foot passengers who haven’t showered in two days. Since the seats aren’t very comfortable, most everyone sleeps on the floor either in sleeping bags or wrapped in blankets from reception. I found the daytime on the boat much more pleasant. There are places on the deck that you can spend resting in the sun. In the late afternoon the chairs in the lounge were turned facing the TV so the passengers could watch Germany play Argentina in the World Cup. Germany won again.
Eager to see a bit of Bavaria, I took a long eight-hour bus ride to Munich from Berlin, where I would stay with a nice Swiss boy and Polish girl I met through couchsurfing. The center of Munich looks like a fairy tale due to its Gothic architecture, except it is overflowing with people and tourists.
(the Carillon, or glockenspiel)
(inside Theatinerkirche St. Kajetan)
But what is great about Munich is that it only takes a short train ride to reach the countryside.
I was one of just two people on an otherwise empty single car train tearing through the trees toward Munich from a curious place called Bayerisch Eisenstein. The scruffy man swigging a bottle of beer several seats away from me was an indication that I had left the sterilized city.
Bayerisch Eisenstein is a remote village in the middle of the Bavarian forest in southern Germany.
The man at the information desk in the train station did not speak English, and I do not speak German, so with no information on this place I spent the afternoon wandering foot paths and eventually a road that led up a hill. I decided to ask a man approaching from behind where the road led to, and to my surprise he said in perfect English that it led to some cable cars, but I would be heading straight into the storm coming our way. Hoping to catch a hilltop view, I continued upward anyway, passing quaint wooden houses and a man rounding up hens while a large woman sat on a deck watching, into the woods toward the thunder. Drops began to fall on my cheeks and I still hadn’t found the top, so I headed back.
I sat down across from a stocky elderly woman and a mother, father and child in the single car train waiting to head back to Munich. Moments later a man boarded and suddenly pulled out a badge from beneath his shirt, and he asked us all for our passports. He was an undercover policeman looking for drug smugglers, he said. Looking at my passport last, he asked me what I had my spent my day doing, and why I had come to the Czech Republic. I hadn’t realized I had crossed the southern border by coming to this place. After convincing him that I wasn’t a drug smuggler, he stepped off the car and the train started back toward Munich.
While walking through the centre in Munich I came across an area in the middle of an outdoor market shaded by trees and packed with people on benches drinking pints of cold beer. Since I hadn’t yet had a beer garden experience in Germany, I bought a beer and sat down at a bench. A jolly-looking older man with red cheeks wearing blue suspenders was sitting across from me, and before I knew it he was teaching me German and buying me another pint. Despite the beer glasses lining each picnic table, I noticed there were no signs of obnoxious drunkenness.
A man plays accordion on a bench as I walk past to catch a train into the city from the Berlin airport. I’m immediately faced with the anticipated language barrier when I try to buy my ticket, but with a strike of luck a man out of nowhere asks in a German accent if I need help. As the train hurdles toward the city the green trees whizzing past are interrupted every so often by buildings or walls covered in graffiti. The number of people stepping on and off the train with bikes takes me by surprise. The hostel I stay in that night, the Generator, is sized more like a hotel, and its décor reminds me of a giant spaceship.
The Generator rents out bikes cheap for a 24-hour time period, so I spent a day riding a bike around Berlin, quaint and full of trees, bike lanes and street art.
(overlooking Berlin’s Spree River)
That night I meet with my couchsurfing host and we go out for drinks. On the train there are raucous drunk boys fisting beers and chanting what I assume are German football pride songs (Germany was preparing to play England in a World Cup match the next day). I am introduced to the best cheap German beer I have ever had.
The World Cup has new meaning when you are watching it projected on a large screen in the middle of Tiergarten Park surrounded by several thousand ecstatic Germans singing and waving German flags. In the World Cup spirit, Germans have been gathering in public places to watch Germany’s team lead the country into the 2010 World Cup. And on this day, Sunday, Germany beats England.
Every week there is a flea market in Mauerpark in Berlin. We miss the market after the game, but make it in time for the famous Bearpit karaoke session. It’s a rowdy yet pleasant crowd where the audience might spray beer over the heads in front of them or jump onto the stage and start dancing.
Hyde Park is a green gem by day and one of London’s largest parks, but walking alongside it alone after midnight with handfuls of luggage is freaky. I had taken the night train from the London Stansted airport into the city, and then caught a bus to Bayswater Road where my hostel was supposed to be. But I got off too soon. Envisioning a headline in the next day’s paper about the girl who got mugged next to the park, I decided to catch a cab the rest of the way.
Royal Bayswater hostel is pretty dingy, but it’s cheap and located directly across from the park, which is nice to have access to waking up in the morning. I took the tube (subway) to Soho where I was swallowed by herds of pedestrians jammed on the streets. Later I met with my couchsurfing host, a Londoner with a real vintage air who immediately garnered my appreciation of English humor, and we went to the Candid Arts Cafe near the Angel tube station. Later that night we went to the Bugaloo, an Irish-owned pub where they were playing proper old school rock, doo-wop, etc.
(inside Candid Cafe)
The next day I met with my long-lost London friend at the Liverpool station. We hadn’t seen each other in at least four years.
Camden is of course where the infamous Camden Markets lies, but I am instead drawn to the Camden Lock, where you find Londoners sitting by the canal and enjoying the afternoon chatting over cigarettes or just having lunch.
The London Bridge, Millennium Bridge and London Eye are really just eye candy but nonetheless part of what adds to this city’s charm.
(London Eye in the distance)
It is mind-blowing to see historic places I had only ever read about in books. I couldn’t fathom that I was standing inside Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre or outside of Buckingham Palace. And if you wish to see all the treasures that Great Britain has looted over the years from around the world, just step into the British museum.
(outside Westminster Abbey)
I find time unnerving in this city. I don’t understand why so many Londoners choose to spend their time in uncomfortable, sweaty subway madness instead of taking a bike or walking simply because it saves time. Time spent stuffed unhappily in a train inside a black hole seems like time wasted. And as my host said, on the tube there are so many people around that everyone just blends into the thick mass of bodies, stepping on and off platforms in a daze.
My host told me a great story as we walked to dinner one night. I think it sort of characterizes London as a city. One day his uncle was randomly offered anything he wanted by a man on the street. Being gullible, his uncle actually asked for black velvet for his photo room. Shortly thereafter, the man arrived with a car full of velvet and insisted that his uncle either took it all or had none. As his uncle headed home with his car packed full of the velvet, he heard a newscaster on the radio reporting that the police are looking for a man who had stolen a black velvet curtain from one of the city theaters.