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?

17 July 2008

Melide to Arca O Pino

Day 21
6:55 am - 3:30 pm
32.4 km

With nothing to rush me through this ostensibly easy day, I "slept in" and didn't hit the road until nearly 7 am. I seem to have alternating good and bad days, because my pack didn't sit quite so well on my back this day as it did the day before. Nevertheless, I made respectable time and thoroughly enjoyed a cloudy day walking along a shaded, mostly soft dirt path. When I arrived at the 120 bed albergue, I was shown to an upper bunk bed. When I asked for a lower one, the chica told me the upper option was the LAST BED IN THE ALBERGUE! To repeat, I GOT THE LAST AVAILABLE BED. Good thing I rushed up the hill coming into town past those other poor suckers. No, my friends, this was not a time to gloat. I knew the travel gods had smiled upon me once again and wondered what I could offer them in return. In the evening, I failed to prevent myself from drinking yet more beer and then nearly busted a gasket when I randomly discovered that Nine Inch Nails has been churning out album after album in the last 12 months, which means tour, which meant I was lucky I could still buy a ticket to the New Jersey show in the crap section last night. I only got two this time. For both lunch and dinner, I enjoyed my final, self-prepared tomato, avocado, and canned fish sandwiches.

16 July 2008

Portomarin to Melide

Day 20
6:30 am - 3:00 pm
39.6 km

Ten hours of sleep works wonders, doesn't it? I woke early and arrived at my destination nice and early. Quite a few people in Portomarin left even earlier than I did: like, around 5 am! It was still dark! What were these insane people thinking? Most of them, I assume, were new pilgrims. Since you only have to walk the last hundred kilometers to get the official "compostella" at the end, which certifies your completion of the Camino de Santiago (and assures your entrance to Paradise, I assume), many pilgrims (too many, in my opinion) just do that bit. I even heard that Spanish people get some kind of special dispensation from the government if they do it, or a salary rise or something. So the trail's getting busier as are the albergues. In a few weeks, it could be hard to find a bed. Luckily, I will be done tomorrow afternoon or, more likely, the following morning. The early risers must think they're going to beat the heat. I left at 6:30, couldn't see a thing for the first hour, and it was still quite hot by midmorning. But today, I was on fire. I could tell right away (see yesterday) it was going to be a good day, because when I put on my pack, it felt like I was wearing nothing. Isn't that funny how one day it feels heavy and the next day it doesn't? I took advantage of my good feeling by blitzing past everyone who left with the moon and doing 12 km before 8:30 am, at which point--the highest point before the camino descends to Santiago--I had my morning cafe con leche. Ahhh... From there, the trail is mostly asphalt (love it) and mostly shaded (love it more) until it gets to Melide. I was going to go on past Melide to ensure I arrive in Santiago tomorrow, but then I sat down in one of this city's famous "pulperias" or, and you might have to be me to get excited by this,


I recall, when I was a child, my father used to bring me to the gourmet food section of the local supermarket and point out the canned octopus, which I then thought so disgusting. Now, the jaws of life couldn't pry me away from


For only €8, I got a large basket of bread and a larger platter of octopus chunks, sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with some kind of red pepper powder (pulveria?). I learned from the octopus that I'm doing the camino, presumably, to enjoy it--like I enjoyed eating at the pulperia. So intead of forcing another 14 km out of my tired feet and strained shoulders, I put down my backpack in Melide for the night and even met a Japanese woman for a small practice-my-Japanese bonus. Tomorrow, I will probably do another short walk and arrive at Santiago in the late morning on Friday. I have to get two stamps a day in my pilgrim passport now, in order to prove I've walked the last hundred kilometers (and not, for instance, ridden a donkey), stipulated as necessary by, I don't know, the Pope or Jesus or someone. Now, it's time for my cerveza con limòn. I forced myself to wait until the evening, so I wouldn't fall asleep before updating you, my dear readers, on my timely progress. This time, I'm going to have a "grande".

15 July 2008

Samos to Portomarin

Day 19
7:05 am - 4:30 pm
34 km

Did I mention that I've seen the sunrise every day for the last three weeks? Well, I have, and it's been very special. I never see the sunset, though. It never seems to happen in Spain. I go to bed at 9:00 or 10:00 pm, and it's still way up there, blaring away (does the sun "blare"? someone check dictionary.com). Anyway, I did not enjoy this day. I can tell early on whether the day is going to be good to me, hikingwise. When I woke up today and put on my backpack, it felt heavy. Hmm.. bad sign. I then had to spend most of the day walking long distances between few towns on hard-surfaced, winding country roads. And, it got hot early and got hotter later. So, I didn't make much progress, but I considered this a rest day. I arrived later than usual at Portomarin, which is actually a beautiful, hilltop/riverside town I recommend to anyone looking for a quaint, quiet place for a holiday. Despite my hardships, I was amazed again by how beer and pizza make them all go away. I was also amazed by the albergue's kitchen. It was spacious, well-equipped with two sinks and a complete range, and possessed exactly one pot. I guess I bought that quinoa in Leòn for nothing. Sigh.

14 July 2008

Ruitelàn to Samos

Day 18
7:15 am - 5:00 pm
39.9 km

Another great day with mountains! That's a sentence fragment, Japanese readers, and should not be used for instructional purposes. I just can't help being excited by mountains. There have been so few on this pilgrimage. At the top of today's, I entered the province of Galicia at the town of O Cebreiro. I'd been wanting to visit O Cebreiro for some time, because I think it has a cool name. In Gallego, 'o' and 'a' are used instead of "el" and "la" as articles. This may seem like a minor point to you, but the speakers of local dialects in Spain take them quite seriously. I gather this from all the signs containing "el" that are spray-painted over with "o", for example, and vice-versa. O Cebreiro is particularly cool to me, because when you get there and see the verdant, rolling hills of Galicia from one of its highest points, you too have to say "Ohhh Cebreiro!" Galicia is named for its Celtic (or Gallic, or Gaelic, or Gaulic) indigenes, who once seemed to live everywhere from Scotland and Ireland to France (aka Gaul), Spain, and even Turkey (Galatia). Now, they all own shops that sell "celtic design" souvenirs, which have nothing whatsoever to do with basketball. I enjoyed a variety of my favorite pleasures today, as well. Galicia reminds a bit of Nepal. Like the trails there, the camino in Galicia passes through mostly tiny villages where the locals have set up little cafes and restaurants to entice weary walkers. Also, there's stinky cowshit everywhere.

After hiking, as it were, over the mountains and through the woods (raspberries for sale en route! I didn't have a whole euro for the box, so the old, toothless lady gave it to me for 30 cents! score!), I arrived at the Greek-sounding monastery of Samos, a giant establishment in the middle of nowhere, Galicia. The hospitalero told me I still had time to visit the monastery's interior and then, afterward, listen to the monks sing. Instead, I went to the bar, got half-drunk as usual on cerveza con limòn; went to the restaurant to eat delicious Galician seafood and get the rest of the way drunk from the free wine; went to the supermercado to buy myself an ice cream and, a new guilty pleasure, an ice-cold can of orange Fanta. And then went to bed. Very happy and quite unconcerned that I missed the singing and whatnot. That's another sentence fragment.

13 July 2008

Ponferrada to Ruitelàn

Day 17
7:05 am - 5:30 pm
44.8 km

The oatmeal made me late again, but I still managed to cover more ground than necessary again. I started off thinking I would take it easy today, but that plan always gets replaced with the "if I just push myself a little more, I can get to the next town" plan. So here I am, one town farther on than I really need to be before I start the "difficult" climb tomorrow up to Galicia and the last stage of the pilgrimage. Galicia is so far away from the rest of Spain (New York to Pennsyltucky in American distance), they have their own language, Gallego, which is pronounced, believe the awful truth or not, "ya-YAY-yo." Actually, it might be difficult getting up there. For most of today, I had a horrible pain in that muscle above the ankle that must be used for going down mountains (see yesterday), and I fear (get ready for future tense usage, grammar mavens) it will not have gone away by tomorrow morning. In which case, I really *will* take it easy. I stopped at a makeshift cafe today run by an old Spanish guy in his garden. He asked me whether I liked Bush (I said "¡No!") and then proceeded to complain about the pain in his knees. I sympathized in broken Spanish. I decided to push on to this town because the refugio here is called "Refugio Potala" and it made me nostalgiac for Tibet. In my imagination, I thought it would be a beautiful place done up in Tibetan style with a gourmet meal for supper (since it's a privado). In reality, it's hum-drum with one bathroom, a dormitory in the attic, and pasta for dinner (for €6). They do have free internet and donativo massages, though, so it's not a total disappointment. But the last town! It had an open store! And today is Sunday!

12 July 2008

Astorga to Ponferrada

Day 16
7:00 am - 6:15 pm
53.7 km

Due to my pasta breakfast, I got an uncharacteristically late start this day but still managed the ridiculous and painful feat of walking over 33 miles today. Not much compared to past occasions, but with my backpack, this was difficult. Since, once again, very little happened (I saw lots of beautiful scenery, etc.), I want to point out if I haven't already, and if I have I want to reinforce, that every year only about 350 American pilgrims set out on the Camino de Santiago. That's pathetic! "But America is so far away from Europe. It's easy for the Germans to go there." Nice try! Even more Canadians do it than Americans, and there are ten times more of us! I know you'd all love to wake up every day at 5:30 am for 30+ days in a row and walk all day until your blisters outnumber your toes in the blazing Spanish summer. But you don't have long enough vacations, right? That's really too bad. I don't know what you should do, in that case. Start fighting to change the system or something. Ponferrada is named for a famous (medieval?) bridge made out of metal that crosses the adjacent river. I couldn't find it. I soaked my feet and had oatmeal for breakfast.

After re-reading this post, I realized that it's all lies. This day was, in fact, quite interesting because I finally passed over some topography. I was cautioned to sleep at the bottom of this first of two ranges of mountains before ascending, because they are "difficult", but I don't listen to such nonsense. Instead, I walked the 22 km from Astorga to the town at the bottom, marveled at how the Spanish pilgrims can drink beer in the morning before a full day of hiking, and then up, up, up I went. I think spring came later in the mountains this year, as you might expect, because there were still little mountain flowers in bloom everywhere. The visibility was excellent, too, unlike the first day, so I could see a great distance among the high, rolling hills (not many actual peaks). I was so excited to be crossing mountains, I think I went faster than usual, though going down is always rough. Still, I managed to walk my greatest distance so far and *with* a mountain obstacle in the way. So I am not impressed with that old French guy's assessment of "difficult" hiking conditions (back in St. Jean... did I mention him? I can't remember anything!). Yes, this was a great day, a great day indeed! I even had my customary beer with lemon before staggering into the albergue.

11 July 2008

Leòn to Astorga

Day 15
6:20 am - 5:30 pm
48.9 km

The cathedral was awesome. The stained glass windows dazzled me with color in the waning afternoon light; the nave rose to, what can I say, cathedralesque heights above me; the exterior sculpture work on this Gothic masterpiece was a wonder to behold; and, most importantly, it was free.

The long and not-so-winding road today took me straight across the paraño to Astorga, another city with a spectacular cathedral (not free). The paraño, like the meseta, is flat and boring. The only difference is that one is called the meseta and the other is called the paraño (drum riff). In the morning, I walked the first 8 km or so with an Irish physicist lady. Somewhere among the next 30 km, I passed my Norwegian friend, who now has a name: Barbro (sounds like Barbra, as in Streisand). Did I mention her before? I'm not checking. There was also a really cool bridge in one of the towns (translates into English as "little town with really cool bridge" OK that's a joke, but the real name is "Hospital de some river" which is boring and not as cool as my name). After that town, I missed the ruta alternativa and ended up walking alongside a major highway forever. After forever was over, I ascended into Astorga, which I liked right away--small and managable; clean and quiet; many historic buildings (including a Gaudi); and pastry shops everywhere. I really hit up the pastry shops, I tell you. I made way too much pasta that evening for dinner and wound up having it again the next day for breakfast. It was good! Pasta power!

10 July 2008

Reliegos to Leòn

Day 14
6:45 am - 12:00 pm
26 km

Today, I woke up early and bullrushed my way to Leòn. En route, I saw much graffito-propaganda calling for an independent Leòn (Leòn sin Castilla, etc.). Since their unification a thousand years ago, I guess they've finally decided that things aren't working out. Speaking of bulls, I saw the famous running of them on the television at the first bar I stopped at. I'm glad I didn't participate, because quite a few people were injured, many more than I expected actually, not so much gored but trampling looks pretty bad to me, too. So maybe I'll give that one a miss. Now I'm in Leòn. I just changed all my travelers checks, and I'm using some of my precious remaining euros to write this post. The Internet Extortion Facility (IEF) I'm at even charges €2 extra to use Skype. Well, f*ck that and f*ck them. I'm going to the cathedral.

09 July 2008

Terradillos de Los Templarios to Reliegos

Day 13
6:50 am - 4:00 pm
38.4 km

I started off this day keen to make up for the previous day's lethargy. So I booked it across the meseta at 7.5 km/hour until my toes bubbled up with blisters, and I had to slow down, finally collapsing 6 km short of my intended goal in the cool embrace of two cervezas con limòn. I had a 13 km stretch of flat, boring countryside to traverse today, this time alone, and I think I went slightly insane. First I got annoyed and then downright angry with the trail, which refused to end, but that didn't seem to make it any shorter. I sang "Bohemian Rhapsody" to myself over and over again, adding my own variations. The heat and lack of shade probably added to my delerium. At least I'm now beyond the halfway point of my pilgrimage and still ready to tackle the last eight days or so, despite my numerous pains. I will be making these posts even shorter in the future, I think, because I still can't get any money out of these Spanish ATMs and I now have about €317 left to my name, which is what 500VCU buys right now.

08 July 2008

Carrion de los Condes to Terradillos de Los Templarios

Day 12
7:30 am - 5:30 pm
26.2 km

Seriously, some of these Spanish town names are unecessarily long, especially when they contain more letters than the town contains inhabitants. Anyway, today's departure/arrival times and distance traversed don't really count because I spent another day walking with the Hungarians, and they walk sloooooow. So, I will be off again on my own tomorrow so that I can reach Lèon the day after tomorrow. The "highlight" of today's journey was the 17 km, completely straight, completely flat and featureless stretch of dirt road between Carrion de los Condes and the next village. The runner-up is the free Internet I discovered at my albergue for the evening, with which I am writing this post, probably sooner than expected.

07 July 2008

Itero de la Vega to Carrion de los Condes

Day 11
6:55 am - N/A
33.3 km

That N/A above is because I caught up with the Hungarians (saw the Swiss woman, too) and walked--very slowly--with them. Since nothing else eventful happened or is likely to happen while I am on the meseta, I will take this opportunity to say that what makes the Camino de Santiago interesting is the route it takes through Spain. It still follows, more or less, the original track, which itself is so old, you often find yourself walking on Roman roads or over medieval bridges. It passes through innumerable towns ranging in size from large cities like Pamplona and Burgos to tiny hamlets with nothing but a 500-year old church and a bar. Many of the towns (and all of them have a rustic, decayed charm) owe their existence to the traffic along the Camino. That is, they began as support centers for the medieval pilgrims, continued in that capacity until the pilgrimage almost died out, and are now experiencing a rebirth with pilgrims walking the old road once again. It's an interesting phenomenon, historically and economically speaking. I even met a Japanese university student in Logroño who's writing her thesis about it. This evening, I am staying at an albergue attached to a church. While I was typing this post, the other pilgrims stood in a circle (in the same room) and sung some kind of hymn in Spanish. Now they are eating a communal meal, after which they will each have an opportunity to offer thanks in front of the group. I must get out of here lest I am, by chance, called on to do the same.

06 July 2008

Tardajos to Itero de la Vega

Day 10
6:30 am - 4:00 pm
41.2 km

I thought it best to cover as much ground as possible today to make up for the time lost during the averted crisis. To that end, I once again hauled ass across the increasingly desolate landscape. This part of Spain is known as the meseta, and it really is as flat and featureless as a table. There is nothing else to say! I arrived at my destination albergue in the afternoon and cooked enough pasta to feed six people. Instead, it fed just me today and the following evening.

05 July 2008

Burgos to Tardajos

Day 9
4:20 pm - 6:20 pm
9.8 km

The night before, I put my worries aside so I could celebrate Independence Day properly. This meant handing out cheap ice creams to everyone at the albergue (I still had a credit card!) and getting drunk on cheap wine with a bunch of Hungarian women, a Swiss woman who actually started her pilgrimage in Switzerland, and a Spanish guy who's been doing 50+ km a day. In the morning, I started making the rounds in Burgos. I had to find a place to change my cash or traveler's checks. Burgos is, historically, an important city. It was once the center of Spanish transhumance (I like you all well enough not to explain what that is--it involves sheep), and it has an important and beautfiful cathedral that contains the tomb of El Cid the Moor-chaser. I didn't have time to enjoy any of this history, however, because I was broke and starting to feel depressed. I went to every bank, every ATM, and every 4-star hotel in the city. The banks were all closed (for a fiesta, for the weekend, for the summer, whatever); the ATMs all turned me down; none of the hotels could change money (first time ever!). But Burgos is a tourist city, so I expected there must be a few Bureau de Cambio. Nope! I visited a tourist information office, and despite the nice man's extensive efforts to help me, there was nothing he could do. Finally, I went back to the albergue to get my backpack, hoping I could stay at the other albergue (the one with 18 beds that's always full). On the way, I decided to give the shops near the cathedral one last shot. I picked a camera store, which I thought was my best bet, and the lady there, my savior, not only changed 200VCU for me--worth an astonishing €127--she gave me a decent rate with no commission. ¡Que bueno! I rushed over to the Internet cafe and Skyped my bank. The problem, the nice lady explained, was that all transactions from Spain and several other countries (including, curiously, Canada) are being blocked by my bank due to problems with fraud. She told me she would have my card unblocked by Monday. I asked about Portugal. "Isn't Portugal part of Spain?" she replied, as though *I* were an idiot. I decided not to ask about Andorra. With the day waning, I figured I still had enough time and spirit left in me to cover at least the roughly 10 km to the next albergue, which, to my delight, turned out to be free (well, donation requested, but close enough). Things were starting to go my way again... as they always seem to do, my friends.

04 July 2008

Villafranca Montes de Oca to Burgos

Day 8
6:50 am - 4:30 pm
39.6 km

After making myself some omelette sandwiches with the last of my food supply (and thus waking the woman who, for some reason, was sleeping in the kitchen), I hauled ass to Burgos, the next town, I was informed, that would have an ATM. Spain, in many ways, is a backward country. But more on that in a minute. Getting to Burgos was a drag. The first half of the journey was on a dirt road that was so rocky, I couldn't make rapid progress without destroying my feet, which I did. The second half was along a major artery leading into Burgos (a large city). You know those long suburban, strip-malled second-tier highways that never end (think Route 46, New Jersey friends)? It was like that. Not so pleasant! Finally, I reached the Burgos city limits... and had to keep going. On and on. Because. The albergue. Was. On. The other. Side. Of. The. City. "My God," I thought, "I am not amused with you today." It's not the traffic so much that bothers me; it's the constant walking on hard surfaces. 20 km of impacts adds up. En route, I tried every ATM. No luck. When I finally reached the albergue, I was lucky it only cost €3, which is about what I had left (I borrowed 5 cents from the manager so I could spend the rest on a coffee). At one point, I realized it was Friday and that nothing was likely to be open for the weekend and I wouldn't be able to spend another night at the albergue. With no money, no way of changing money, and no way of getting money, I was beginning to feel like a cheerleader the morning after prom.

03 July 2008

Azofra to Villafranca Montes de Oca

Day 7
6:50 am - 6:00 pm
50.1 km

Note: I have redated all the posts for the Camino so the post date corresponds with the events recorded for that day. On this day, the one week mark, I regained my stride and walked a nearly suicidal 50 kilometers. I think I was in a meditative state of delerium most of the time, so I don't recall, for example, "things" happening. Spain for me is like a place out of a dream. It's so lazy, the towns are so quiet, the countryside is so peaceful, I almost don't know where I am or feel that I'm anywhere. It was on this day, however, that I realized my ATM card wasn't working. Luckily, a nice Dutchman with a pony loaned me his mobile phone at the albergue in Villafranca. Unluckily, I could not get in touch with my bank. Luckily, I still had a grand total of €4 in my pocket to see me through to Burgos.

02 July 2008

Logroño to Azofra

Day 6
6:15 am - 1:55 pm
34.8 km

After ditching the extra baggage, and then even more in Logroño (why was I carrying cooking oil? Am I really that much of an idiot?), I felt renewed vigor. With that vigor, I vigorously vigored my way through the next two towns of Navarrete and Nàjera, with 13-16 km intervals in between. The lower temperature today really helped. It's been around 37 degrees C (99 F) every day, but today it was cloudy and cool: a gift from (the travel) God(s). I got back up to a 6 km/hour average walking speed, which gratified me, and reached Azofra, a little country town, early enough to enjoy a long convalesence at the albergue. There, I encountered once again my greatest enemy: Guitar Dude. This one was actually *hand-carrying* his tool across the country (that is, he wasn't wearing it across his back like most of the at least partially-sane guitar dudes I've seen before). So he's either exceptionally dedicated to entertaining others and being the center of attention (American, naturally), or he's a complete f*cking idiot. Given my feelings about Guitar Dude, you likely know where *I* stand, my friends. I had considered going on to Santo Domingo, a mere 15 km down the road, but once again, uncharacteristically, wisdom prevailed! I even treated myself to a pilgrim's dinner at the local restaurant. Funnily enough, the restaurant had wine (which, it being La Rioja, I wanted to sample), but no water.

I'm pretty sure my head has been crammed with many more interesting things to say, but given the present constraints I am under, those percolations will have to wait until another time to be filtered through their blogular outlet.

01 July 2008

Los Arcos to Logroño

Day 5
6:30 am - 2:00 pm
28 km

I decided to take it easy this day, because I'd been pushing myself too much. My blisters were just starting to graduate into callouses, and it seemed like not such a bad idea to go easy on them before they started their new lives. Also, the next town from Logroño was another 13 km further along--a bit much for the end of the day. Early in my journey there, I was in a bad mood. The previous evening, I'd read an article in The Nation about the catastrophic consequences of environmental degradation in the 21st century. When I arrived at the first town of the day, some guy was standing in front of me with a camera aimed at my face. He snapped away and then handed me a slip of paper with his web address. You can surely see the annoyance inscribed upon my brow.

At the next next town, I had my cafe con leche, though, and then all was right in the world. After another giant 16 km leap, I was in Viana. There, I came across a miraculous sight such as appears to humanity but once in a great long while, truly an epoch-defining event that remains in one's memory, indelibly, forever: an open post office in Spain. I took this opportunity to unload about 3.5 kg worth of crap and mail it to myself in Santiago de Compestela, where it will be scrapped on July 23 or 24. So once again, I am on a deadline. But I was also excited to discover that Viana, Spain is the final resting place of Cesar Borgia! You may not have heard of him, but he was one of Renaissance Italy's most notorious and ruthless condottieri. His father was a Pope (wait, how can a Pope have children...?), and he himself was a bishop at the age of 15 (of Pamplona!) and a cardinal at 18. By the age of 31, when he died, he'd received numerous other titles, became the first person in history to resign the cardinalship, and nearly conquered Italy before his Pope-father died, and he was exiled to Spain. To top things off, he was the primary inspiration of Machiavelli's "The Prince", in which all princes are exhorted to behave like the murderous, coercive, but pragmatic Borgia. No, wait, even better: his image became the model in his lifetime for numerous portraits of JESUS CHRIST! And it's been speculated that, on this bases, all subsequent portrayals of the SON OF GOD have been based on it. So, I don't feel quite so bad that I haven't achieved as much in my own life of similar length. Who could compete with all that? At the cathedral where he's buried, I got my credential stamped. How lowly we Italians have come.

In the early afternoon, I arrived in the provincial city of Logroño, my first stop in the famous wine-producing region of La Rioja. I soaked my feet.

30 June 2008

Cirauqui to Los Arcos

Day 4
6:25 am - 4:25 pm
36.3 km

I fell back into my stride on this day. Leaving Cirauqui early, I made it to the next town, Lorca, where I had originally planned to stay, at a reasonable enough hour to enjoy a cafe con leche with my (self-prepared) breakfast. The going on this day was easy in that it was mostly flat, but difficult in that it was extremely hot and a little bit dull. This is not an overpopulated country, clearly, because the towns are small, begin and end abruptly, and are few and far between. The countryside is beautiful and all, but try walking through it for hours and hours, days and days. As I said about Mt. Ventoux, it is well, perhaps, that such things are generally appreciated from a distance. That's not to say I don't like what I'm doing! I love walking, and I am enjoying this walk immensely. But this wouldn't be much of a blog if I didn't squeeze a few barbs into even the most innocuous of posts. For example, why the f*ck don't these people speak English??

From the second to last town of the day to the last, Los Arcos, it was flat, flat, flat and boring. The camino cut a more or less straight path through endless fields with no interesting features on the landscape. When Los Arcos finally appeared, after 12 km of this, I felt it was a miracle. The very name had a mythic quality to me, like some far away and slightly mysterious Mexican town, and I was eager to reach this sanctuary, a haven safely removed from the previous days' pilgrims, who had mostly decided to stay the night in the last town. When I arrived at the local albergue, surprisingly run by Austrians, I was even more surprised to meet a Japanese woman manning (womanning?) the desk. She spoke some Spanish but was quite pleased to be able to speak Japanese for a change, which I was more than happy to do myself, since my Japanese is still better than my Spanish. She put me in a giant dorm room that was completely empty except for me. I slept like a kitten.

¡Buen Camino!

The Internet in these pilgrim albergues costs €1 for 20 minutes, which means I do not have time/money to write a proper update of my last four days of walking. I ought to reach a city in the next day or so, and I am hoping that cheaper netsurfing is available there. So for now: I am alive, I am walking the camino, I am in a lot of pain, as usual, and I am loving it (more the walking than the pain, but you know how much I like pain, too). I also seem to have recovered my ability to speak Spanish, which is gratifying, though the desk girl at the albergue I'm staying at tonight turned out to be Japanese...

29 June 2008

Pamplona to Cirauqui

Day 3
6:55 am - 2:00 pm
31 km

I got a late start today and made slow progress due to the steadily expanding and increasingly worrisome size of my blisters. Every night, I drain them with a needle, but they keep coming back stronger than ever the next day, like hair that grows in fuller and darker after you shave it off. Do blisters follow the same principle? On this particular day, I had greater ambitions than I could pull off. I had hoped to cover 35-40 km/day, but I was exhausted by the time I reached the little hilltop hamlet of Cirauqui, so I decided to chuck it in. Plus, it was extremely hot that day, and, though I like the heat, I am not immune to its debilitating effects. I know I'm not mentioning anything terribly interesting as far as what happened to me along the way, but this is largely because, after a year of meeting people and trekking with people and in every way being constantly exposed to different people with different languages and cultures, all asking me over and over where I come from, etc., I have made it a point to isolate myself on the Camino de Santiago and treat it as a proper, personal, pilgrimage, a quiet time at the end of my trip before I once again have to deal with the little, awful difficulties of regular life. Thus, I am trying to do it alone and speak to as few people as possible. I know most of my fellow pilgrims regard this month of walking as a spiritual, life-alterting deviation from their boring and pointless lives back in whiteland, but, obviously, it's pretty run of the mill for me. So I prefer to leave them among themselves to be amazed with how interesting other affluent Europeans are. In the evening, I stayed at nice, private albergue, the only one available. These pilgrim albergues typically cost anywhere from nothing to €9, with this one being at the top end. Martin, a nice Swede who is one of the few people I have been talking to, showed up in the evening, and that was fine. We keep running into each other. He went out, though, to watch the final football match. In Basque country, apparently, the Spanish soccer team is not a hot item, but they did find a place to watch it, and, I later learned, Spain won. Hooray.

28 June 2008

Roncesvalles to Pamplona

Day 2
6:15 am - 4:15 pm
42.8 km

This day almost killed me, because my backpack, I soon realized, was way too heavy for cross-country trekking. Still, I managed to plunge my way down into the heart of the Basque country, where I basked in the glory of reaching bull-running central in a mere 10 hours. My feet grew enough blisters to cripple an entire race of marathon runners, but I still managed to hobble over to the supermercado to buy cooking supplies. I made six giant burritos out of avocado, olives, mushrooms, eggs, cheese, fish, and squid. Everyone in Pamplona seemed to be drunk or getting drunk that night, and I later learned that the big Spain vs. Germany European football championship was coming up. Otherwise, like every other town and city I've come across in this country, it was completely dead everywhere else at all other times. This is strange to me. Also, nothing is ever open. Also, nobody speaks English. In a way, Spain reminds me of South America.

27 June 2008

St. Jean Pied du Port to Roncesvalles

I have no choice but to use the expensive Internet terminal, but I don't have unlimited 1 euro coins, so I am going to try and cover the last six days of walking with brief blurbs. Seriously, I will be brief this time!

Addendum: There are actually many routes to Santiago. I will be taking the Camino Frances, or French Road, which is the most popular and best marked. The total distance from St. Jean to Santiago is variously given, but 819 km (509 miles) seems to be the most accurate. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela, where St. James is allegedly buried, was the third most important pilgrimage in medieval times, after Rome (been there) and Jerusalem (done that).

Day 1
6:30 am - 12:15 pm
27 km

In St. Jean, I received my "pilgrim credential" which is sort of like a passport but more useful because it entitles me to cheap meals and cheaper (or free) beds at all the pilgrim hostels along the Camino de Santiago, whereas a regular passport merely entitles me the right to enter a country, with no accompanying discounts. I am obliged to get my credential stamped at each albergue or hostel I stay at, but I can also get optional stamps wherever I like along the way. Of course, I love this concept, and I've basically stopped everywhere I possibly could to get my pilgrim passport stamped. The first day of walking was typical for me, because, although it's supposedly the most "difficult" (not exactly Himalayas difficult, I can attest), it is also supposed to be one of the most spectacular, since it takes you up and over the Pyrenees before descending down into Spain. The typical part is that it rained the whole day, so there were no views, and I got completely soaked. In Roncesvalles, famous as the setting for the Song of Roland--the story of Charlemagne's best knight, who took on more Moors than he could handle--I spent the night in a pilgrim's "hospital" that's been serving in the capacity for about 800 years. Basically, it's a giant medieval hall with about 200 bunk beds. Imagine the echoes of the snoring in such a chamber! I would have to imagine it too, because I carry earplugs.

26 June 2008

St. Jean Pied du Port

I am in St. Jean Pied du Port. Tomorrow I will (are you listening, Zach?) walk into Spain. I don't know about Internet access after tonight. Probably intermittent.

Here's a sample of what Google's planning for its new mobile phone OS:

"A GPS-enhanced social networking app that lets you map and track your friends in real time while using the IM function to plan impromptu meet-ups on the go."

Doesn't that sound great?!

Kill everyone. Let God sort them out.

The same day that I returned, recovered, from Mt. Ventoux, I left Avignon for Nimes. I had hoped to see Arles, as well, but given the time I had, I decided that my secret love for the Robert DiNiro movie "Ronin" was not a good enough reason to rush through my last day in Provence. Anyway, the big draw in Arles is a Roman amphitheatre, and Nimes has one, too--in fact, the best preserved one in the world. Score for me! Little did I know, but the day before they played in Milan, Radiohead performed in the f*cking Roman arena in Nimes! Maybe it's a good thing I didn't see them there, because I might have had an ultimate bliss-out heart attack. Isn't it cool that they still use these 2000 year old performance spaces, though?

I arrived in Nimes full of a renewed determination to enjoy life, having just had it saved. Much to my horror, however, the train station didn't have a left luggage room. "Why?!" I screamed in my heart, before heading out, with backpack, to see what sense I could make of the world. Walking along the main drag, I soon passed a hotel. Ah, I'll simply ask... "We cannot store luggage for non-guests" the sign read. So, I was not the only one who had faced this problem, and I was also facing an unfriendly city. The next hotel I passed was a posh Novotel. Figuring my chances were slim, I confidently strolled up to the desk and begged the sweet-looking young woman there to have mercy on me. For security reasons, she informed me, they were not able to store bags for non-guests. I asked why Nimes, unlike every other city I'd ever been to, was at Defcon 2. I asked if I looked dangerous. I asked if it was the beard. Finally, she relented, this proving to me once again that I am charming enough to get anything I want (but remembering the lesson of the previous day, it did not make me cocky).

I then went off and walked around and around the amphitheater, blithely (that's right, blithely) ignoring the "passage interdit" signs, walking on the top rim and through all the different levels of passages. I am still a kid when it comes to ruins, especially Roman ruins. I met my Canadian female counterpart when I boarded the bus to another ruin, the also Roman aqueduct known today as the "Pont du Gard" which I have really, like her, always wanted to see. She (Michelle) even turned out to be a graduate student, so, in addition to ancient hydrodynamics, we had much else to talk about (like how ridiculous it is that bottles of water at the Pont du Gard cafe cost 3 euros). Sadly, we only had a short time to visit the Pont before the return bus. She had to organize her travels for the following day, and I had to catch the train that evening to Carcassonne. Back in Nimes, I drank two beers with fruit-flavored syrup (a European thing we haven't adopted yet in the States), picked up my backpack, and went up to the train platform to await my next TGV...

...to Carcassonne! Carcassonne is a famous castle town in Southern France named after a popular board game. Strangely, I could not find this game for sale anywhere in the city. A woman working at the castle gift shop told me that it might be because it, like her, is German. European prejudice strikes again! It may be for much the same reason that, as my previous host Stephane had informed me, it is impossible to buy foreign wine in France. Like everything else I've been visiting lately, "I've always wanted to go to Carcassonne." "Whatever!" you're saying to yourselves by now, but I mean it! And it's not even because of the board game, though you are within your rights to suspect it. No, it's because the Kevin Kostner movie "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was filmed here. If there's a better reason to visit a place than that it once served as the set of a Kevin Kostner movie (also starring Alan Rickman!), I'd like to hear it. Of course, I wouldn't tell most people this. To the man on the street, I say that I'm fascinated by the medieval heresy of Catharism, one of its main centers having been Carcassonne. This is not untrue--I love the Cathars! They were a Christian sect so radical, they actually believed people should live according to the precepts of Jesus. Naturally, the Roman Church had no choice but to eradicate them in the 13th century, thus inaugurating the Dominican order of monks and the Holy Inquisition (cue Mel Brooks musical number) of much fame. It was during this "crusade" against the Cathars that the commanding priest, when asked how the soldiers would be able to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, famously uttered the quote headlining this post. Great religion, eh? At the Carcassonne train station, I was met by a Frenchman born in South Africa (as he describes himself) named Owen, my new host. He brought me to dinner at a friend's apartment (another couchsurfer) and then back to his place with his cute five year old daughter who wouldn't talk to me. I slept.

The next day, I "did" the castle. Carcassonne is divided into two separate "towns": the castle town up on the hill, inhabited by only 60 residents and 12,000 tourists, and the lower town built sometime around the 13th or 14th century (so much newer). The castle town is enormous and provides the eager sentimentalizing visitor (guilty!) with the best-preserved castle fortifications in... wait a minute, haven't I heard this before? "Whatever!" is what *I* said; it's UNESCO, it's gorgeous, I feel like I'm Christian Slater as Will Scarlett: all is well. In the 19th century, the city was restored and medievalized by the same guy who restored Notre Dame in Paris. This means that, instead of rebuilding the towers the way they actually were, he stuck a bunch of ridiculous Cinderella roofs on top of them. I'll have to watch the movie again to see whether or not they were Photoshopped out. The castle itself (the "castle castle" and not just the castle town) was nothing too special, in my estimation, though it did have a few of those quirky contemporary art exhibits the French seem to stick randomly inside their old monuments. With my entrance ticket, however, I did get a mandatory guided tour of the inner ramparts. Ramparts are cool because the word "ramparts" is awesome. I walked on the ramparts. How often does one get to say that? I also walked around the castle town walls a few times, inside and out, because I like walking around things (this much you know) and very much feeling like I was trapped in a David Macauley book come to life. After the castle, I popped back into town to visit a small John Miro exhibit at the local museum and do my last bit of food shopping in France.

This morning, I will be taking a train to the small Pyrenean border village of St. Jean Pied du Port, which is difficultly pronounced "Seun Zhon Pieh(d) doo Por(t)" but is still not as bad as Arles (don't ask). From there, I will begin the Camino Santiago, a one month pilgrimage walk across the north of Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostella. Along the way, I will visit the most beautiful cities, set in some of the loveliest countryside, of the Iberian peninsula. And that is how I will put a cap on this one year voyage around my smooth world. I'm living my dream, my friends. Are you living yours?

25 June 2008

A Lovely Day Ascending Beautiful Mt. Ventoux, or, Why Won't I Ever F*cking Learn?

They all told me it would be difficult. I scoffed. Mt. Ventoux? Difficult? It's not even 2000 meters! It's an armpit pimple compared to what I've already done! Take plenty of water? I'm The Steve. I don't need more than a trickle of forehead sweat running back into my mouth. If Petrarch, that lazy Pope-bitch who couldn't even read Greek, could do it, surely I could run laps around the thing. And with this hubristic attitude present in my mind, the travel gods struck me down.

I left my pay-for style accommodation in the morning, catching the first bus I could from Avignon to Carpentras. At the tourist office there, I inquired about onward transport to the village of Bedouin, 14 km away at the base of Mt. Ventoux (the highest mountain in Provence--yawn). There is a bus, apparently, but it only leaves twice a day at completely inconvenient times. This left me with only one, expensive option: taxi. So I hitchhiked. Lucky me! It only took the nice Swiss man who picked me up 15 minutes to find me. And he even brought me, out of his way, all the way to Bedouin! Wonderful! And guess what, he says to me, Monday is market day! Hurray! Not only do I get a ride to the cute, medieval farming village, but I'm treated to stall after tantalizing stall of Southern French cuisine--herbs and spices, cheeses, meats (not for me), olives, tapenades, produce, seafood, bakery goods, chocolate, soap all for sale, all beckoning deliciously (including the soap: I bought a violet). The entire Mediterranean diet and lifestyle strung out along a single, handy village lane. After the tiny bit of shopping in which I allowed myself to indulge, I pompously sauntered up to the tourist office, pizza avec quatre fromages in hand, and demanded to know the way to the mountain. The trail begins, the woman informed me in French (which I seem to understand), at an even smaller village 4 km further down the road. "How many of these f-ing villages are there?!" I yearned to ask but could not think of how to translate. I may not have mentioned this, but I can't help speaking English with a French accent when I'm in France (and much of the rest of the time, too). At the beach party, Max convinced me (it was pretty easy) to speak this way the whole time to everybody. My story was that I was French but living in America. My parents wanted me to learn English so I would fit in and didn't teach me French. Unfortunately, *they* taught me English themselves, being highly educated in it, so I ended up with their accent and no French-speaking ability. Much to my surprise, the French seemed to buy it, while those in the know were highly amused and impressed by my skill. I think I'm quite convincing, actually. The point of this aside is, I received retribution for this little stunt on the mountain.

Stomping off from the tourist office, I headed into the foothills. The trail up Mt. Ventoux is clearly marked, well-maintained, and easy to follow. Naturally, I got lost. My first indication that something was amiss came when the trail simply stopped dead. "What?" I thought. Well, I'd been told that Provence received an exceptional rainfall this winter, so perhaps the mountain paths were just a wee bit overgrown. Wee bit! I couldn't find it at all! I went back and forth, forth and back, for hours, making very slow progress and having to bushwhack my way painfully through all the goddamn beautiful scenery (ha, beautiful from a distance--try walking through all that picture-perfect, skin-lacerating foliage!). At one point, some tree or other must have unzipped the front pocket of my backpack, because my clock, pen, and sunglasses case were all gone. No problem with that, since I hated all of them (the case was handy, though). But, now I couldn't track my progress, which was increasingly seeming to me a progress toward death. I am not overreacting, people! I was in the thicket "stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
returning were as tedious as go o'er", as it were. And I was running out of water. Many cries of pain later (those brambles really hurt once all your shin-skin's been stripped away), I randomly ran into what looked like an actual path. I was wary, at first. But it was real: a real path! How had I missed it? "Who cares?" in my delirium, I asked no one in particular. Off I went! So happy was I to hit the fastlane again, I drank all the rest of my water, assuming I could reach the summit in less than 20 minutes. Hey, that was pretty stupid! Because the top was still a looooong way away. And the signs I sometimes passed were misleading. According to one, the summit was a mere five odd kilometers away. I walk at least five kilometers an hour, even uphill, so I felt I could wash my socks in my water if I wanted to (surely there'd be a fully equipped cafe at the top, hopefully Petrarch-themed, I figured). Ahem, it was not five kilometers away. I think I took another wrong turn, because the trail crossed the road the lazy tourists drive on to the top, and then I just started following that. Big mistake! The road is always a lot longer! In retrospect, I think dehydration must have affected my judgment (which was clearly functioning when I set out that morning). I walked on this empty road for at least five kilometers before it joined another, better road, that cars were just zipping past all the time on. So, I thought I could hitch to the top. But nobody would stop. Perhaps my beard makes me look like a terrorist, but, come on, grant the guy on the mountain road in the middle of nowhere some mercy! No mercy. The drivers that day were all tourists, I suppose, and tourists are sans pité. I had unkind thoughts. But I kept walking. At a certain point, I looked up: there was the top! High, high above me... my God, it was high above me, and I didn't know what time it was, I didn't have any water, it was extremely hot, I was perspiring heavily, I felt tired and dizzy, and it might have taken me at least another two hours on the tarmac to get up there. "Might have?" you ask. Yes, I did the unthinkable. I gave up.

Turning back around, I had no better luck hitching down to civilization. Deciding to go with the devil I knew, I returned on the same route I came in on, but, don't act so surprised, I got lost a third time, but not so badly since I was still on a well-defined track heading in a downhillwardly direction. Nevertheless, I had a long way to go: at least 14 kilometers in the still hot sun, and I was so, so thirsty. I couldn't think straight except to beg the travel gods for deliverance (but not like in the movie). At one point, I took a pee, and saw that it, a mere trickle, was dark and yellow and menacing. I was pretty sure of my imminent death and wondered if I'd left any mature content on my laptop when I finally saw signs of habitation: vineyards! Yes! Guarded by giant, ravenous rotweilers! Oh no! But the track turned into a road and houses started to appear, and I knew I must be saved. My savior himself was the first little old French man I saw in the near distance. "Monsieur! Monsieur! Si vous plait! Je suis un stupid tourist Americain! Eau, si vous plait! Eau!" I hoarsely cried out. And eau he gave me. I haven't decided if this man or the Swiss guy who gave me my first ride (and suggested I take lots of water) were *the* travel god incarnate, but it is likely they are both among their ranks. The man brought me back to his ridiculously cute farmhouse, where I sat down and just started panting. I couldn't take more than a sip of water at a time, and his wife found my moribund condition highly amusing (I'm sure it was). Eventually, I regained my composure. At one point, their son Guillaume came in, and he spoke English. After conferring with his parents and informing me that it was much later than I thought (no bus back to Avignon!), he asked if I'd like to have dinner with them, stay the night, and then ride with him back to Avignon early the next morning since he works there...



So I had a nice shower, a nice quiche, and slept in the nicest bed that's ever been volunteered to me. The next morning, I sat behind Guillaume on his moto and loved him and loved France and blessed my luck in spite of my idiocy.

Incidentally, Guillaume works for the world-famous Avignon Festival, which you probably haven't heard of. I thought that was pretty cool.

22 June 2008

Too Many Popes

Did I promise to say something about my sightseeing in Avignon? Do you really want to hear it? OK--the number one attraction is the Palace of the Popes, the residence of the papacy during the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church in the 14th century. At this time, the Holy Roman Empire was constantly fighting with the Church over the so-called Investiture Controversy (sleeping yet?), that is, over who had the right to control the Church (and appoint bishops) within a given kingdom, the king or the Pope. At one point, Rome and the Papal States became overly threatened by the Empire, so the Papal Court moved to Avignon, which it owned. Meanwhile, the Empire appointed its own Popes in Rome while the Antipopes (no joke) ruled in what is now France. At one point, there were even *three* Popes, which is, in my opinion, just too many Popes. These days, the palace is monumental and beautiful but also empty. So I was glad to go there and soak up the ambience, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone else given the admission price.

For a change of scenery, after visiting the palace, I hiked across the Rhone (ah, the Rhone Valley, home to my beloved Syrah) to a little village called Villeneuve, once the entrance to France coming from Papacy-dominated Avignon and environs. There's a castle there I figured I might as well check out since, basically, I could. It was empty, too. And a bee stung me.

OK, forget all the rest. In the evening, I met up with my Avignon hosts, Stephane and Claire, who informed me that they would be going down to the sea for a beach party the following day and that I was invited. I'm going to say no to that? We were joined by their friends Timothee and Max, two of the nicest people, French or otherwise, I've ever met. I like the French! You bigoted Americans don't know what you're missing. I know they seem standoffish at first, but once they figure out that you're not going to bite their heads off and shove bullshit down their exposed, gaping throats, they become the sweetest people you'll ever meet other than the Japanese (which they remind me of a little). Actually, we didn't go to the beach with Stephane and Claire. They left early to set up the generator and sound system (cool, eh?). Timothee, Max, and I were picked up and driven down the shore instead by Francois (I don't know if I am spelling these names correctly, nor where the accents or hooks go), another sweetest guy I've ever met. At the beach itself, I can't say I felt the most welcomed in my life, even though most of the youths there spoke English. It's funny how an ample supply of beer and wine makes that irrelevant, though. And, yet again, I found myself dancing into the early hours of the morning--at two parties, actually, since I crashed the one next door when we ran out of beer (and met another couchsurfer there!). How do these things keep happening to me? At one point, during a moment of particularly high excitement, I jumped onto Max (a tall guy) who happily followed up by swinging me around in circles until I felt pukey. Things died down around 3 am, and it was then that I realized I had nowhere to sleep; everyone else had brought tents. Stephane had lent me a sleeping bag, however, and I prudently purchased a foam mat at the (mouth watering) hypermarket we'd visited the night before, so I curled up and passed out happily in the music tent.

Waking early, Francois, Timothee, Max, and I dirtily trundled our way back to Avignon, where I had to egress from Stephane and Claire's (most awesome I've ever seen, old city) apartment due to mechanical troubles with someone's van at the party, an early morning the next day for Stephane and Claire, etc. So tonight I am once again (gasp!) *paying* for accommodation at the local hostel. It's so crude that some people actually expect you to pay money to stay with them, wouldn't you say?

20 June 2008

Foutu en France

In Europe, trains are never late. Except when I'm on one. So my train from Milan to Lyons, my high-speed pride-of-France TGV train, had engine trouble and was quite a bit late, and I missed my connected to Avignon. The SNCF staff were courteous and professional about it, though, and arranged for we who missed the connection, first a ride on a different train to Valence, then a shuttle bus from the Valence TGV station to the central station, then after a considerable wait during which I found a Turkish snack stall still open at midnight, a charter bus to Avignon, where I arrived at around 2:30 am with no clue what to do, my hosts there having had already to go, understandably, to bed. So I walked across the city to a hostel listed in my Lonely Planet. It was closed. I walked back to the train station. It too was closed. So I dropped my backpack to the ground, dropped my ass down next to it, and attempted to sleep on the pavement while the deafening chatter of construction work went on only 50 meters away. Luckily (luckily?), the station finally did open after 4 am, so I was able to park myself on an uncomfortable seat and sleep for a few hours with my face planted in my bag. At around 6 am, I roused myself and went out in search of coffee, for which I wounded up paying, in my delirium, 6.75VCU. I will say more about the sights and whatnot later after I've seen more of them. So far, I've only managed to tour the Palais du Papes, but Avignon is quite beautiful, and I imagine the rest of my time here will more than make up for last night's misfortune, which I should have expected after my "evil eye" bracelet from Turkey broke in the train. And I was really hoping last Friday the 13th would be the end of my misadventures. But this is traveling for real, my friends. No last minute 89 euro hotels for me when a nice, comfy parking lot is available for free. Funny that a beggar still asked me for money. How could I possibly have looked as though I actually had any? Pardon, mais je ne comprend pas le Français!

18 June 2008

Po' in the Po Valley

You last left your intrepid hero in the bowels of the former, as Oprah would have put it, "You go, Slavia!" But finally, from behind ye olde iron curtain, I have been crapped back into Western Europe. I thought I heard this on the overnight train from Ljubljana to Venice, but perhaps it was only my imagination:

"You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sightseeing and the sound of tourists but of mindless football fans; a journey into an overpriced land whose boundaries are that of the Schengen Agreement — next stop, the Euro Zone."

I was surprised to find that European trains are *less* comfortable than Indian ones. I wonder who the genius was that designed all the blocks of seats to face one another so not only do you constantly bump your knees against the other passengers, but you have to stare at their ugly faces for hours.

I arrived in Milan midmorning some days ago but had to wait until the evening to meet my host here, the charming and dashing Lorenzo. So I left my bags at the luggage room and tooled into the heart of one first Italian city in nine years. While Milan has a reputation for being unattractive, I think it's pretty enough, at least in the center. I walked past La Scala, where it's always been my dream to see an opera. "La Traviata" was on last night, in fact, but I was too busy getting drunk in the park outside the second night of Radiohead (more on that anon). As far as sights go--I saw few since I am now totally uninterested in them--I have to admit I was impressed with the duomo here, a ginormous white pile of towers, statues, buttresses, and even flying buttresses. But forget all that, because the coolest thing about it is you can go up onto the roof! Not just to the top of a tower, but actually ONTO the roof! Can you do that anywhere else? I've been to many cathedrals but none that permitted access there. As you can tell, I was delighted. See, some things still impress me. After that, I briefly met Raffaella, who, due to a miscommunication, biked halfway across the city to get a concert ticket from me that she mistakenly thought I had. Sorry, Rafaella! After that, after that, I randomly stumbled across a Peter Greenaway installation art exhibit presentation thing featuring Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". This was pretty cool, too--Greenaway, in a departure from his usual pissing Cupid weirdness, uses special lighting and a soundtrack of mystique to explore and bring alive the painting, printed in large scale on a wall, in interesting and unusual ways. I felt after seeing it that I probably had a better experience of the famous painting than if I had actually gotten an appointment for the real one. I think I spent the rest of that day drinking coffee (LOVE IT here), eating pizza (still better in New Jersey), and wandering idly as is my custom. In the evening I met up with Lorenzo, and he was kind enough to cook risotto basilico for me. Yum.

The following day, I somewhat stupidly took a day trip to Verona, two hours away by train. But I had wanted to stop there--nothing could keep me away from the House of Juliet (I'm not joking). Also, I was supposed to stay with a man there named Sauro, who I kept changing my plans on. In the end, he was gracious about that, being a traveler himself, and still met up with me there for a brief tour and explanation about how the Church still owns the country. I skipped the Roman amphitheater on his recommendation (unusual behavior for me, but perhaps the Italians have had enough of Roman amphitheaters? they were preparing to perform "Aida" in this one), but I did pay too much money to visit the ridiculous House of Juliet and have my photo taken on the balcony. How could I possibly resist that? Beneath the balcony, there is even a bronze statue of Ms. Capulet. The famous photo most people (men) have taken there is of themselves holding her tit. I so wanted to ask them how they felt about doing that to a barely pubescent girl (Juliet was probably 12 or 13), in mid-photo naturally. But I did not.

In every way, Verona is a spectacularly beautiful city, perhaps one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. These Italian cities really are too much for me. They are just too attractive. I can't imagine living in such a place. Ah... sigh. Enough. Hightailing it back to Milan, I arrived in time for a major downpour. You may recall that I bought four tickets to a Radiohead concert here, hoping I might sell three of them in order to make some money, at least enough to pay for mine. These tickets were quite expensive, as was the cost of shipping and handling from the UK to the US and shipping again from the US to Italy. I thought I was so clever because, naturally, these tickets would be in high demand given the stature of this, my favorite band. There was, unfortunately, a certain football factor, other even than the rain and the presence of mafia selling their own tickets, that I could not have anticipated and because of which I cannot even bear to disclose the sad outcome of my little enterprise:


Truly, my friends, I had no chance. What can one do when the universe is so aligned against you? I went in and enjoyed the concert anyway with Raffaella (who bought one ticket at my cost) and some other Couchsurfers. Que sera la vie.

The next day, since most people selling tickets for my show couldn't even give them away, I had the bright idea of going to the second show. Unfortunately (for my plan), it turned out to be a gorgeous day with no football, and the scalpers had no mercy, even after the show started. Nevertheless, I *still* had a great time hanging out with a bunch of even more couchsurfers and miscellanious Italians on the grass outside, listening for free and getting completely drunk. This morning, no hangover.

Sadly, I did not make it to CERN. My tour was cancelled, and they couldn't guarantee me a spot for the following day, so I opted not to waste time, money, and my own dwindling energy going up to Switzerland. No matter, today I am off to Avignon. Ciao!

15 June 2008

This is Illyria, lady.

Given the cost of Internet in Euroland, my posts may start becoming more perfunctory, unless I am writing from a host's computer, which today I am not.

So. I think I said I would say something about Albania. It's probably not as bad as you think... how about that? It looks pretty much like everywhere else. The women are exceptionally beautiful, something I appreciated when I crossed into Montenegro, where, decidedly, they are not. I had a great time hanging out with Teni. He told me all about Albanian history and had some interesting opinions about things. Albanians believe themselves to be the descendants of the ancient Illyrians, who occupied what is now the former Yugoslavia in ancient times (I just wrote "is now the former Yugoslavia"... is that an anachronism or prolepticism?). Teni told me that what most Grecians, who think ill of Albania, don't know or refuse to believe is that they are actually Albanians themselves. Sounds pretty typical! Naturally, we went bar hopping in the evening and got drunk. I am starting to wonder if Europe isn't just a place where people are always either in cafes or bars and most likely watching football. Such a decadent place. At one point, I went down to a grassy bit next to the "river" (which looks like a sewage ditch) and attempted to show Teni the head stand yoga position. I failed. Later, I noticed that all my Albanian lekes fell out of my pocket in the process. The next morning, I went back, found them, and bought breakfast.

Crossing the former Yugoslavia was a bit grueling. I first took a minibus from Tirana to Shkroder, a town in the north of the country. I think that's how it's spelled. From there, I had to take another bus across the border itself into the world's second newest country, Montenegro. Montenegro is SLC wedged in between about five other SLCs. I had to bus-hop from town to town to make my way across it. Despite its size, this took all day. At one point, I met a Montenegrin from Chicago who said he works for Bank of America and is the President of the American Society of Montenegro or something. He was wearing a nice suit, so I believed him. He also told me how much the Montenegrins hate Serbs and Croats. Some VIPs showed up later, including a religious figure in appropriate apparel. I ended up around midnight in a place called Herci Novi or something, a town, like every other town in Montenegro, with a castle, a historic center, and a bunch of bars. I had intended on staying in Kotor, which has Europe's southernmost fjord (and, I suppose, a good alternative place to visit if you can't a-fjord Scandinavia haha), but the bus attendant told me I was better off going on to the end of the line. I hate him now, because I couldn't find any cheap rooms in Herci Novi and ended up paying a budget slaughtering 38 euros for a shitty hotel room that including a shitty breakfast that was mostly meat (I gave it up again because it was sickening me). I'm glad I didn't sleep outside, though, as I thought I might, because there was torrential rain, most of which leaked through the window into my shitty hotel room.

In the morning, I learned what I was about to face in Croatia when I had to pay an extra 2VCU to store my bags in the luggage compartment of the bus to Dubrovnik. Bastards! Upon arrival in Dubrovnik, I immediately set out to visit the old town (one of these days, I *will* get sick of old towns), which was once known as Ragusa and was a major rival to Venice during the Renaissance. Well, Dubrovnik turned out to be the ultimate overpriced FTT. It is very pretty but just completely overrun with camera-toting bus people (and cruise linering boat people). One saving grace were the city walls. I love walking around old city walls. Dubrovnik's are particularly well-preserved and from on top of them you get some lovely views of the expensive cafes.

After a few hours in Dubrovnik, I split for Split (Spalato in Italian), just barely missing the early bus because of traffic and resigned to the somewhat later bus, which deposited me in Split around 8 pm. So, I had two hours (until 10 pm, when the bus station luggage room closed) to visit the awesome remains of Diocletian's palace, most of which has been converted into a series of, you guessed it, overpriced bars and cafes for decadent Europeans to waste their money and lives watching football. Still, the palace is impressive, and I was lucky that the cavernous basement was still open. I've never seen a Roman ruin of such grandeur before, mostly because none of them are left. But this place, in its beautiful hugeness, is special, and I hope someday to go back when I'm not rushing across the Balkans like an idiot who can't plan trips.

At 11 pm, I caught another bus to Zagreb, the last place I wanted to go. But there was no other choice. I paid for a piss, I paid to store my bags on the bus, and off I went on an uncomfortable, mostly sleepless journey to the capital of Croatia. I arrived in the early morning and went to the information desk to ask about onward buses to Ljubljana. I was told in Dubrovnik and Split that I'd easily be able to get one and that they depart every half hour. The information lady, naturally, told me there's only one per day at 2 pm. Groan. What about a train? She didn't know. This is a problem in Croatia. The information people don't know anything about other cities. In Dubrovnik, nobody knew about buses out of Split. In Split, no one could tell me about onward transport from Zagreb. I think they should rename them "misinformation offices" and put a lowercase 'm' inside of a circle, instead of an 'i'. The lady in Zagreb was unfriendly, too, as were many people I had to deal with there. Anyway, I wandered in a 5 am daze around the city, looking for the train station, to which I kept being misdirected. I found a nice man who couldn't speak English but whose German I could just barely comprehend, and we went to the station together, since he was on his way to Belgrade. Luckily, thank you travel gods, there was a 7:50 am train to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and this I took, and now there I am.

My host here, Tamara, happens to work at the "hippest" youth hostel in town and, apparently, one of the 25 top places to stay in the world. It's a converted prison in which the rooms are former cells, each one renovated in a unique "hip" style by a different "hip" designer. It is a pretty cool place as hip youth hostels go, but at 19 euros a night, not a place I would deign to stay if I could avoid it. I have to say, too, that it bears out Ljubljana native Slavoj Zizek's observation that the relics of the Communist era have, in a strange way, become fetishized emblems of "the good old days" of Communism today (strange because of the brutality of the Communist system; you don't see this sort of thing happen with the remains of Nazism, for example)--so it is natural that a prison would be converted into a hotel. The current prime minister of Slovenia was even held here once, and he and his fellow inmate-comrades recently came to the hotel for an anniversary luncheon. I didn't see much of the city this first day, because I was tired and it was raining, but I did find one of Zizek's no doubt many offices in the Faculty of Philosophy building (he did *not* magically appear and sign my book, though), and I visited the "castle" (not so impressive). Ljubljana has been compared to Vienna, and I guess I can accept that. It is a little bit like Vienna on a small scale, with many pretty buildings, fountains, a river, and so forth. And, of course, bars--to one of which Tamara, a friend of hers, and I repaired when her shift at the hostel ended. There followed the usual drinking and dancing until 4 am (how do I keep letting myself get talked into these things?) after which Tamara and I went back to her place and slept until noon. Today, I meandered around the old town part of the city a little bit more, visited the city museum, and had the best falafel of my life at a little restaurant operated by a Palestinian. We had a nice chat, and then he charged me 3 euro each for two pieces of baklava. I paid, picked my eyes up off the floor, and went off to write this blog entry. Tonight, I'm overnighting it by train to Milan via Venice (groan again).

So much for perfunctory...

11 June 2008

A Grecian Tragedy

Friends, I am ashamed of myself. I have betrayed not only my calling and good sense but also the cause of backpackers around the world. Do you remember when I said that I could easily lie to get into the Acropolis for free as a "European" student? I just couldn't bring myself to do it... and the travel gods have punished me. Oh, I got my look at the most famous monument of Western Civilization five years after the first time I saw it--and it looks more or less the same--but I paid a high cost, higher than the 9VCU entrance tariff.

The following day, I finally got around to buying a bus ticket to Tirana, Albania. Beforehand, I had lunch with John Coleman, the Cornell archaeologist I worked for briefly in 2003, and his wife, Laura. I had a great time seeing them again. John just finished teaching only one of two courses in the history and philosophy of atheism in the United States, which courageous act earned him the ire of many of his enlightened Ivy League colleagues. I doubt he cares much, though, because he's just retired and he and Laura will be building a house in Greece (of course I plan to visit). Oh yes, I had a great ole time, until I went back to Lena's place and 1) discovered one of my three pairs of high performance underwear missing, 2) with only minutes to pack and rush to the bus station, accidentally locked the keys to my backpack inside my backpack... for the second time this trip (scroll back to my first Mumbai post), and 3) on arrival in Tirana, found that I had also left my shampoo and beloved shower poof ("loofah") at Lena's apartment. I have learned my lesson, friends, and will not be telling the truth any longer where my integrity as a scum of the Earth traveler is concerned. Clearly, it angers the powers above.

Despite these mishaps, I at least made it to Tirana. The bus ride took about 16 hours, with a nice 3 am border crossing to keep me on my toes. To gain ingress to Albania, I was charged the princely sum of 1 euro at the border, what for I can only guess. My Lonely Planet said I would have to pay 10, so at least one pleasant surprise was intermingled among the bad news of the day. I was met in Tirana by Irena, a kind Albanian I contacted through the Couchsurfing website. By the way, if you want more information about this whole couchsurfing thing, here is a video report on it from Business Week magazine: http://feedroom.businessweek.com/index.jsp?fr_story=f265eaf6c3ab4de95757e228d778f6851e82fcfc

Anyway, Irena met me and right away we bumped into her friend Tani, the guy with whom I spent most of the day. They brought me to a kind of apartment homestay--really nice place. The young woman there, when I asked the price, said 10 dollars or 10 euros. I said, "Really? Or?" She said, "...yes." "Really? Don't you know they're different?" "It's OK. You decide." Luckily, I had VCUs on me and paid her with that, my currency of choice, but only because I am loyal to my country and prefer using its products and finance instruments whenever possible. The punchline is, as I was later informed, she's studying economics. But, as I was also informed, Albanians, once they say something, don't like to contradict themselves. Certainly works for me. I will have more to say about Albania in my next post. Tani showed me around the city, which looks typical enough, but he, Irena, and I will spend more time together after the nap I'm supposed to be taking, and now will go and take, right now.