30 July 2008


I have been thinking for some time about how I ought to end this blog, what an appropriate final post should look like in terms of overwrought, sentimental summation. I've had quite a few ideas. I thought, once, that I should drop my characteristic irony and say something sincere and uplifting about the transformative power of world travel. I thought it would be an appropriate way to cap my adventures to communicate to you, my readers, the genuine joy and excitement that thrilled through me each day of my encounters with the unsought and unexpected, how much I learned and how much more I recommend the same magical/spiritual/mystical experience to everyone (please drop whatever it is you're doing right now and GO). But does anyone really want to hear all that crap?

I thought I might even write an abstract poem on the subject:

O Earth, all serried natives,
and one word to combine all;

stitchings of nations,
over mountains and moraines,
lain carpeting, draped;

stirrings of the many-hued,
the long sung and the new upsprung,
into the dusty continents poured;

shifting borders, blending,
only porous definitions--

the lines that divide
are the lines that bleed.

Did you catch the sophisticated syntax and all the double-meanings?

I thought I might provide a sober, unsentimental assessment of what travel means to me and how I really feel about it and how it fits into, shapes, or alters overall life experience. I could say, along these lines, that it can, among many possible options, broaden your perspectives, sharpen your judgment, and stimulate senses you didn't know you had, but also confirm your deepest prejudices, confuse you, frustrate you, and make you run screaming home certain you'll never leave the safety of your IKEA futon again. I could cop out and say that I really don't know what it means or does or why I keep doing it. I can't actually recommend it to everyone. Some people don't seem to me cut out for it. Sure, if you have an expense account, you can do it in relative comfort, but, then, why bother do it at all? I think to travel, you need to work without a net as much as possible. If you aren't relying much on local means and local sources of kindness, then you're seeing the world but not engaging it. Sightseeing is fine, but don't tell me you're jealous of what I do if you yourself aren't prepared to sit on trains and buses, overcrowded and in stifling conditions, for 24-36 hours at a time, sometimes overnight, sometimes on particularly dangerous routes; if you aren't willing to talk to "regular" people, to love them and even more, if you aren't willing to despise regular people, because they are people, too, after all--just like you--and sometimes despicable, just as deserving of your hate as anyone else when it's justified; if you aren't willing to wait and wait for no apparent reason for no specified length of time for just about anything; if you aren't willing to go without most of the comforts of home; if you aren't willing to eat what there is to eat or cook for yourself night after night or sometimes live on biscuits or sometimes starve; if you aren't willing to deal with extreme emotional experiences like crushing loneliness and hysteria-inducing confusion; if you aren't willing to spend days or weeks puking and shitting out the taint from a befouled piece of fruit; if you aren't willing to endure relentless stares and personal questions about your religion, marital status, and income; if you aren't willing to pay too much because you're a foreigner but still remain capable of staring beggars in the face and saying, "No." If you aren't willing to do at least these things, don't tell me you're jealous of what I do, and don't tell me you're a traveler. There's no shame in just being a tourist or travel hobbiest. In fact, it may be better. I'm insane.

I thought I should offer some kind of pithy and glib recap of each country I visited:

Quite possibly the best food in the world; enjoyed the mountainous North more than the floodplain South. Commies.

"One dolla! One dolla!"

Heaven and Hell rolled up into one country and stuffed with sticky rice.

Boring, but I was only there a few days, so my opinion is worthless.

Vague, but tea-licious.

South Korea
I loved it--the food, the people, the sights... just the energy of the place in general. Pretty girls.

Great trekking, fantastic landscape, interesting history and culture, spectacularly-situated ruins, and overall incredibly depressing.

Friendly, untouristed, compellingly remote, cheap, and very clearly governed and financed by drug dealers.

Worth visiting just for the food, but there are too many people and they all spit too much. Huge. Good train system. Commies.

Most affecting place I've ever been. Very, very high.

*The* backpacker nation; an interesting blend of different cultures, but the food gets tiring pretty quickly. Too many tourists, but the great mountain views make up for it.

Doesn't really feel as crowded as it is. I had a great experience there with archaeologists. Dhaka is dirty.

Probably the most real place I've ever been. Almost every country I've been to since then has felt artificial somehow. I did not necessarily like it.

United Arab Emirates
God-awful. A grim vision of our future society, stripped of politics, a hulk of banal consumerism.

Like something out of The Arabian Nights. Pretty. Expensive.

More amazing than pith has leave on which to expand. Ignore the travel warnings and visit a remarkable, unthought of land; has all the authenticity those annoying authenticity people are always looking for.

Reminded me of New Jersey but with an ex-Soviet twist. Ararat!

Non-recognized. I turned 30 there.

A slice of Europe dripping down from the Caucasus into the Middle East. More pretty girls.

Incredibly nice people. More expensive than expected. Lots of ruins, which I love. But you have to pay to pee, which I don't love.

I liked it better this time, but I got to hang out with Greek people. Really very magical.

Not as dysfunctional as I was expecting. Is that a disappointment?


Too expensive and too touristy. Sorry, fans, I didn't like it, but maybe it's just not for me, because everyone else does.

Inoffensive. Nice people. Home of Zizek.

Oh, the food...

Oh, the food...

Sedate enough by day for a pilgrim, wild enough at night for the unpenitent.

Charming. Cheap(er). I want to go back for more.

United States of America

In the end, I couldn't decide what to do, how to end this yearish-long blog started on a whim, its content (and discontent) since more complexly evolved. So, as usual, I sat down, began typing, and typed until something came out that is at least long enough to qualify for the burdensome office of Last Post. To refer back to my first post, by way of closing things out for good, I have to say, though I didn't mean it seriously at the time, that my world, and the things I did in it, really did go down smooth (,baby), so I think I was prescient in choosing my otherwise arbitrary title.


29 July 2008

Gaudi was crazy

Today is it. It's over. Finished. Finito. The last day of my one year trip around the world. I was a bit cranky this morning, because I had to wake up at 5:30 after a late night out and catch a 7:30 am, €100 (!) train to Barcelona, where, with no Couchsurfing hosts available, I was forced to check in to an overpriced Lonely Planet hostel (my room, when I arrived, was full of empty bottles of vodka and passed-out backpacker chicks). But then I realized: I did it! I made it! I didn't go broke, get seriously ill, or die! I have everything to be happy about and thankful for. As this thought occurred to me, I was strolling along the tourist street of Las Ramblas, where there were insane numbers of tourists doing the usual insane, touristy things. But I walked tall through the crowds of pretend-happy holiday makers and didn't even hate them that much today. With very little in the way of an itinerary, I figured I'd just cut a broad swath through this extremely lively city (alas that I have only one day!) and have a look, at least, at La Sagrada Familia.

And, my God, if I may say, that thing is impressive! This was the one time I regretted not having a digital camera, and it wasn't entirely the fact that Gaudi's crazy masterpiece is the most interesting (and ridiculous?) looking cathedral I've ever seen, but it's still under construction (other projects completed in the same span of time include the entirety of modern civilization), and I've never before seen a monument of such proportions being built--from the inside, too! There were cranes all over the outside (like Dubai) and scaffolding like cobwebs on the inside (like most of Italy on the outside). Plaster models for the strange sculptural details were in the nave, workmen doing their work thing all over the place. Cool stuff. The most impressive thing about La Sagrada Familia is definitely the sheer amount of expensive, tasteless crap people were purchasing in the gift shop. I never saw so many €100 notes being passed over the counter for such crap (little miniatures of the cathedral, coasters, €7 pencils, etc.). What a waste. We're in a recession? Anyway! So much for Barcelona.

I am sorry to be leaving The World, but I am not entirely unenthusiastic about going home and jump-starting my life again. I want to see all of you, too! Everybody! Get in touch with me! Let's make plans! Help me find a place to live, too!

If you've enjoyed reading my blog this year, please consider making a donation to The Steve Fund. It's easy! Just log in to Paypal, create an account, and email me any number of euros, yen, or VCUs with which you feel comfortable supporting me and my role as American Cultural Ambassador to Earth and Giver of Hugs to All. Cash in hand also welcome. Please, buy my love!

One more post, the wrap-up, to come. Thanks for reading, my friends.

28 July 2008

Reàl Madrid, for real

I like Madrid. It reminded me of New York: huge, noisy, crowded, and nobody speaks English. I had to squelch some of my overambitious plans for lack of time, so I didn't get a chance to see the Escorial palaces, where Philip II once acted CEO of the Spanish empire. I did, however, see the two top ticket museums: the Museo del Prado and the Museo Reina Sophia. I saw the latter first and the former last. I love visiting museums. They're usually so peaceful inside, little worlds cut off from the world; it's like going back to the womb. The prize of the Reina Sophia's modern art collection is Picasso's enormous "Guernica", which has its own room (like Seurat in Chicago) and TWO female attendants making sure no football teams try to steal it.

The Prado is one of the greatest museums in the world, I have oft been told, and has a quite large collection of the European masters, especially those rascally Spaniards Goya and Velasquez. Actually, I thought the Prado would be bigger, but it seems to be under restoration, and many of the exhibition rooms were closed. Still, it's no Met, and I'm sure that's an unfair comparison. Nevertheless, experiencing the face-off across adjoining galleries between Goya's "Family of Charles IV" and Velazquez's "Family of Philip IV" is something I won't soon forget (it's like crossing the beams in Ghostbusters: too much artistic power concentrated in once place). There were three other paintings I must mention because they seemed so strange to me. The first was a portrait of a man with a single breast, feeding an infant. I am sure there is an allegorical religious message contained therein, but I can't read artspeak Spanish, so the label, like the one-titted Renaissance guy, was beyond my comprehension. The other two paintings were versions of the same scene: a statue of the Virgen Mary coming to life in St. Bernard's presence and squirting milk into his mouth. According to the tag (this one I could just make out), this is a particularly beloved subject in Spain. Weirdos.

I did not much else in Madrid in the few days I was there. People-watching, mostly, and ambling up and down the wide boulevards. But there was one exciting development. Do you remember my Irish friend, Maeve, who appeared in sundry of my South America blog entries? Well, she made a special guest appearance in my life yesterday. She just finished her yacht duties in Newport, RI, and flew directly to Madrid to visit her friends here, where she used to live and work, here where I just happened to be, too. So we had the mostly lovely, drunken reunion. Luckily, her friends had to work the next day and she was jet-lagged, so I didn't end up staying out all night--normally a fine diversion once in awhile, but I had a train to catch to Barcelona in the early morning, and I wanted to at least be semi-conscious in the last city of my trip.

I can't believe it's almost over: two and a half years outside madhouse America. I hope my country won't reject me like a bad organ. I may have changed in ways I can't perceive, perhaps too much to fit back in again. The more frightening possibility, however, is that I haven't. In any event, I do miss my loved ones very much (my books, my Mac, my inflatable exercise ball, certain people) and hope to see you/them all soon.

26 July 2008


In Seville, I stayed with the lovely, Italian Anna, her trenchant husband, Juan, and a number of cats and children. On the way *to* Seville, I met Kevin, a Texan who knew not of the ways of couchsurfing and was actually *paying* for accommodation. Well, I set him straight awful quick, dragging him along to Anna's for what turned out to be a homecooked dinner and, lucky guy that he is, an invitation to join me in my Seville couchsurfing experience. Various combinations of Anna, Juan, Kevin, and I spent the next few days idly wandering around Seville, its day and its evening, at one point completely failing to see the cathedral we had set out to visit, because we spent about three hours talking in the cafe across the street. Que sera, sera?

Despite Anna's nearly successful attempts to persuade me to stay longer, I had to leave her and her insane kitten for Granada, where I was welcomed by my fellow New Jersey escapee, Adriana. Adriana is studying architecture at Berkeley but has been in Spain for a few years, I gathered, and also speaks, in addition to Spanish and English, Arabic, Italian, French, and German. Naturally, there was a party the night I arrived, but it was broken up by the police shortly after we arrived--just like in America! I spent the majority of the next day up at the Alhambra, that famous Moorish monument you've probably at least heard of (I know Kajori has). Since its artistic achievement is in a non-representational style, it would be difficult for me to describe the dream that it is to walk through such a luxuriant series of beautifully ornamented gardens, courtyards, plazas, and fortresses, ornamented beautifully by such tilework, such carving in wood, and such craftsmanship in stone: there is nothing in particular, no focus of attention, to concentrate your gaze (or camera on), just an infinite interweaving of geometric precision and calligraphic sublimity. The tourists were confused--with no statues, idols, portraits, or outstandingly distinguishing features to take photos of, they simply took photos of everything: the walls, the ceilings, the floors, the windows, and even the turban niches. I assume they will assemble them later in Photoshop, though I cannot fathom, for the life of me, why.

In the evening, there was not exactly another party but a dinner to which I was graciously invited after I missed my bus to Madrid. We had burritos prepared by American Amy, and I got to stretch my Spanish speaking "skills" to the limit by chatting with the non-English speaking locals who also attended. I think they liked me! Today, I took a morning bus to Madrid, where I am being entertained by the Italian resident-in-Madrid, Michele. He is extremely tall and even more extremely kind. Tonight, get ready for a surprise, there is a party. But after too many nights in a row staying up until 3 am, I have decided, instead of meeting another gang of no doubt wonderful and interesting people, to rest. And now, as well, I will also rest.

23 July 2008

I can't think of a way to pun on "The Barber of Seville"

Mostly because I got my mustache trimmed in Lisbon.

But I am back in Spain now, where the people don't nasalize their vowels, and thus elude my comprehension. Specifically, obviously, I am in Seville.

Ah, Seville! Mistress of Andalucia! The old Al-andalus of the Ummayids, the even older Vandal kingdom, that paradise of citrus and sunny days destined never to rule itself, so coveted it is, so indefensible. Seville, the launching-off point of Christopher Columbus and so many conquistador-explorers after him, the first port of call for the treasure fleets of old, where the wealth of the New World was debarked and transformed into grand cathedrals, stately estates, Goya paintings, and Spanish laziness (c.f. Montesquieu). Seville, the home of bullfighting and flamenco, ku klux klanesque Santa Semana processions, late night fiestas, and Lord knows what other decadent and delicious delights. Seville, an almost legendary city culled from a near-mythic land. Seville, where the lavish, Moorish Alcazar stands against the most beautiful cathedral in Spain (third one so far), within, the tomb of Christopher Columbus himself (second one). Seville, setting of "Carmen" and "The Marriage of Figaro." Seville, inspiration to generations of artists, composers, and poets.

Ah, Seville. Yes, I am in Seville.

21 July 2008

The End of the World

I met up with Gabor, my couchsurfing host, in the afternoon in Santiago, and, after loading up on wine and beer, we, along with the Japanese woman I met previously and bumped into again, went back to his apartment, which is right on the camino route. He lives with four other people: a Pole, another Hungarian, a German, and a Belgian. Strangely, they all spoke Spanish as their common language. Gabor had made a comment about pasta being a "simple food" so I decided to teach him a lesson. Because the Spaniards are barbarians, I couldn't find all the ingredients I needed (no tomato paste? no basil?), but I managed to scrounge up most of them at the supermarket to make my special tomato sauce (thanks, dad). Gabor and his roommates were puzzled that I was going to spend more than three hours cooking mere tomato sauce (a simple food!) and even laughed at me. When I finally served it to them, however, they were quickly converted. As a pedantic academic, nothing gives me more delight than demonstrating to people how wrong they are. Doing so with food, however, tends to go down better.

The next morning, I rose early to catch the bus to Fisterra, once the Roman "Finis Terrae", the end of Europe and therefore the end of the world. The Camino de Santiago continues to this pagan place past Santiago itself--another three days of walking--but I was too short of time to walk this part (few pilgrims do). The bus passed through numerous Galician seaside villages along the way, and they all seemed adorable enough. At Fisterra, I still had to walk a half hour to the lighthouse at the end of the world and even tempted fate by walking through sharp-needled brambles down the cliffside to the water's edge itself. I found a cave there and took a nap inside. Later, I went back to the village for beer and coffee before bussing it back to the city. So now I have done it: the Pacific to the Atlantic, more or less overland. In the evening, I bumped into Michael, an American I met working at one of the albergues along the way. He's actually an episcopal priest (or about to be) and a gay one, too, so I was thrilled to have the chance to chat with him again. Get this: his parish is in Honolulu, Hawaii. Boy am I visiting! We had delicious hot chocolate and then went to the best "mirador" for viewing the cathedral. Feast of St. James festivities had begun, but the best of that evening seemed to be a cover band that murdered Metallica. I couldn't take more after that. I never did get to kiss the statue of St. James inside the Santiago cathedral, but that's fine because I wasn't going to. My feelings toward the Catholic Church might have led me to spit on it, but I managed not to act out my rage this time.

The following day, I went to Lisbon, Portugal, where I am now. There, I met Neimar, my Brazilian couchsurfing host. His apartment is gorgeous! And new! And I get my own bathroom! With a bathtub! Believe me, these simple pleasures you all take for granted are quite a boon after what I've (happily) been through. The evening I arrived, it happened to be one of his fellow Lisbon couchsurfer's birthdays, so I was invited to go along with him to a couchsurfing party at his friend's apartment. Great people, these Portuguese! I was fed well, held a sparkler for the birthday girl, and got to try, as I so desired, the famous vinho verde. That was last night. Today, I've been sightseeing, as much as I can tolerate doing that anymore, around Lisbon, or, as the locals call it, Lisboa (where does English come up with its Anglicizations?). Naturally, it has a castle, a cathedral, and a bunch of churches. It also has neat little trams that climb the hills, and I took one of these up to a viewpoint first thing. Skipping ahead, I stumbled across a Japanese tea house. I couldn't resist having a nice lunch there with real powdered green tea. The waitress couldn't speak English, though, and I obviously don't do Portuguese yet (I seem to be able to read it, though), so she had to fetch her Japanese boss, and I ordered in Japanese. That was weird! I think one more interesting church is on the docket before I figure out what to do with my evening: bath, movie, or fado performance. Fado is a Portuguese style of music about which I know nothing, but I think it's like the blues. Lisbon is pretty, quaintly historical, and slightly dilapidated. I like it. All European cities were probably better when they were so cheap, rundown, and impoverished.

18 July 2008

Arca O Pino to Santiago de Compostela

Day 22
5:55 am - 9:45 am
20.3 km

It is accomplished! I woke extremely early to beat the crowd to the trail and also to ensure I'd get a bed at the Santiago albergue (which has 400, which costs €12, and which I am skipping anyway because I managed to arrange a couchsurf). The first 15 km were through empty woods and countryside--just lovely, though a bit hard to negotiate in the early morning dark. To my surprise, I kept passing people who left earlier. Some people I passed told me they left at 5 am. These people are insane! At around 8:30 am, I arrived at the last hill before the descent into Santiago. Here, there is a giant and terribly ugly monument erected to celebrate Pope John Paul II's visit to Santiago, whenever that was. There is also an 800-bed (!) pilgrim's albergue, which must be the mothership of hostels (and I thought that honor belonged to Sydney Central Backpackers). Soon after, and powered by Lindt chocolate since no cafes were open yet, I charged my way into the city, blatantly (like a New Yorker) ignoring all traffic signals as I click-clacked my way to the unbelievably gorgeous cathedral. I spent nearly 5 seconds marveling at this wonder in stone before directly my feet to the pilgrims' office. There, I finally received my "compostela", the official certificate of pilgrimage completion. Since I checked "not religious" under the "reason for walking" box on the sheet the girl gave me to fill out, I got the shitty secular version of the compostela. The religious one looks way cooler, with a nice border, Latin inscription, and everything. I asked to swap, but they told me once they issue a compostela, they are not allowed to change it. So I'll have to walk the whole thing again to get another one. Motherf**king church.

Maybe it's better this way. I walked the Camino de Santiago for myself, not for some higher, religious or spiritual cause. I don't really see why people make a big deal out of it, either. The Lonely Planet recommends five weeks, most people take around a month, and I did it in three weeks. There are hotels and hostels all along the way, and the path is well-marked and basically flat. It is not challenging, and yet people all the time every day complain about aches, pains, blisters, people snoring in the albergues, etc. This was a cakewalk, people, compared to the Andes, the Himalayas, and even parts of the USA. Nevertheless, I did have lots of time to myself, lots of time to consider those big questions that, however trite, are still relevant to our sense of ourselves and where we belong in the world. Time and time again, I kept returning to one question, however, that I often contemplated without discovering a satisfactory answer. It is a question one must pose to the universe, perhaps, and only from the universe might it be possible to receive a reply. Barring that, maybe the collective wisdom of you, my readers, can produce an answer to this greatest of mysteries with which I have ever struggled: why do cyclists wear such ridiculous outfits?