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.