Friday, October 17, 2008

...and, after seven months of procrastination (Sarah-style):

As frustrated as I’ve found that you all are with my lack of communication, I’ve already accepted that you all won’t cry over this, my last blog entry ever, but maybe you all could pretend to be a little upset?  Or a fake sniffle or two?  Please?  Is anybody even bothering to read it anymore?  You know what, fine.  I’m going to write it anyway, just for me.  And, obviously, my blog’s last huzzah will be talking about my last huzzah—Italy. 

Having finally planned out an entire trip—well in advance!—I was pretty excited the night before I left for Rome.  My bags were packed and I even snuck in one last Semana Santa, KKK-style procession no joke—Google “Nazaren” to see the hundreds of people marching down my street every night the week before Easter) before I flopped into bed, ready to wake far before dawn to catch my painfully early flight to that seductive boot-shaped country I’d been dreaming about.  Imagine my surprise, then, when something other than my alarm woke me at 7:30, ten minutes from my flight’s departure time and an hour bus ride away from the airport…

Important life lesson learned: that’s what you get for making plans.

But, after the predictably tearful outburst of disappointment and a frantic phone call to my parents, I decided that I’d rather laugh than cry about it. So I bought myself another (120 euro) flight to Italy two days later and settled in to enjoy some relaxation and a pile of chocolate croissants from my true Spanish lover, Pan y Chocolate.

I made the next flight (after setting two alarms and arranging a call from Mom at 4:30 my time), and, without mishap, made it to my hostel.  And Rome was: Colosseum (long lines, expensive, mooched off all English-speaking tours by pretending my camera was broken and that was the reason I was lingering for such an uncomfortably long time right near the tour guide), lots of walking with gelato in hand (definitely lives up to all expectations), St. Peter’s Basilica (breathtaking and surprisingly empty on Good Friday, even for 7:30 in the morning), Sistine Chapel (waiting for two hours in the rain in front of a group of Americans who spent the entire time catching up—their words—on their Hail Marys, in I’ll-show-you-religious-fervor loudness), first experience with Italian pizza, the Pantheon (no words can describe it), ancient Catacombs (more fun to find than visitnote to self: just because Italian is easy for Spanish speakers to understand doesn’t mean that the reverse is true), etc, etc, etc…

The part I really enjoyed about Rome (besides the pizza, obviously) was its propensity to lend itself to stumbling upon fountains or statues or buildings so famous that I’d seen replicas of them in the Victoria and Albert Museum, or had read breathlessly sycophantic treatises about their artists.  And seeing the Pope.

Every Good Friday, the Vatican re-enacts the stations of the cross, starting at the Colosseum with a speech by His Holiness (in order to avoid confusion with the other HH mentioned in this blog, we’ll just call him number two) and then processioning through the streets in the exact places that Christ did his thing.  We headed down early in order to try and get a good view of something, and that we did—on the far side of the Colosseum, away from the crowds, was where the Pope-mobile was slated to enter, heavily guarded by Polizei.  We snuggled up under the umbrellas of some international priests-in-training, to whom I accidentally lied regarding the devoutness of my Catholicism…I’m going to Hell.  However, number two didn’t come, apparently due to the torrential downpour that we pious followers had been enduring for an hour, just for a glimpse of him.  How insensitive.  Prepared to throw in the towel, we were sloshing back to our hostel when we saw an enormous crowd gathered, facing a little white speck on a cliff.  Oh, yes, there he was, reciting the stations of the cross in seven different languages.  And no, I didn’t fall asleep this time.

You’d think that, being the seasoned traveler that I am, when I woke up the next day I’d have had some inkling that it was going to be at least as nightmarishly intense as the Day of That Busride in India…and, yet…

5:45 For the third day in a row, I woke up early to catch a train—my desire to see Italy was not curtailed with the length of my trip when I missed that flight.  Lugging my 50-pound pack down 7 flights of stairs, I waited in line (really?  A line?  It’s 6 in the goddamn morning!)  to retrieve my key deposit.  However, the cute-as-a-button old Hotelier wasn’t in on this plan, and instead of handing me back five euros, kept adamantly saying, “shit!  Shit!  You!  Shit!”  Uhhhh….  Assuming he meant my receipt for the deposit, I tried explaining in Spanish that I hadn’t been told I needed to keep it and threw it away (Hotelier: “shit, shit!”).  Eventually he fetched a policeman, who was of course just hanging out in the hotel at 6am, who interpreted: not “shit”, sheets.  Back up seven flights of stairs.  Wake up six roommates fumbling in dark.  Back down seven flights of stairs.  Wait in line again.  Receive 5 euro.

So at 6:55, 13 minutes before my train left, I ran to the train station.  Did I mention my pack was heavy?  Well, it was.  And a ten minute run to catch the train I had unchangeable reservations on forced me to confront my own mortality (foreshadowing?).  But I did catch the train, which proceeded 30 meters out of the station before decisively stopping.  Already half-asleep in the compartment I shared with a smiley Nigerian man, I decided to ignore the unintelligible strings of announcements (I did continually catch the word “mumblemumblepolizei”) and only wake up if somebody physically chiseled me out of my seat.

7:15 Somebody physically chiseled me out of my seat.  And though he claimed to speak Italian, Mr. Nigeria was of no help in figuring out why we were then told to walk back along the tracks into the station and catch a train to Munich.  Yeah, sure, ok, Munich.

7:17 Ah, that would be it: the body of a railway worker lying in our tracks.  “Shit.”

7:29 found me attempting to reason (Mr. I-Speak-Italian Nigeria standing uselessly at my side) with the Munich-train worker to let me on, as I know this train stops in Florence, and yes, I know I don’t have the right ticket, but, see that poor guy on the tracks back there?  That’s why I’m not on my train.  So he let us on, and Mr. Nigeria found us the only empty compartment, where I promptly fell asleep, trying to ignore the feelings stirred by seeing my first dead body, before 7:30 in the morning.

At 8:45 Mr. Nigeria woke me up to kindly let me know that we would be in Florence.  In an hour.  And that he wasn’t going to let me fall back asleep, because otherwise I’d miss my stop.  Thanks.  Trying to figure out how to sleep with my eyes open, I was caught a little off guard when Mr. Nigeria looked at me suddenly and said, “Sarah…I love you.”

9:16 So I spent the next 30 minutes alternately sitting in awkward silence or trying to get him to stop.  How do you reason with somebody who insists that, though you only met a few hours ago (over a dead body, one might reasonably add), there is definitely potential in this marriage?  How do you drive into somebody’s head the idea that you don’t fall in love with everybody you meet?  And how are you supposed to react when he accuses you of being racist?

My solution: leave.  At 10:00 I disembarked in Florence, after spending the rest of the trip standing in the vestibule ignoring the pleading looks that he would occasionally open the compartment door to throw at me.  Checking my bag (though I still was stuck with laptop and small backpack), I set off to explore one of the most enchantingly medieval cities in Europe, though it was pouring rain and miserably cold.

11:20 found me chatting for an hour with an Albanian leatherworker who made me the souvenirs that I keep meaning to give you guys.  I made a point of asking him when the main event of the day, which was Easter, by the way, occurred.  He said it was definitely at 12:00, which was an independent confirmation of what I’d already heard.  I’d been reading about Italy for a while, and most of my guidebooks talked about this fantastic event held only in Florence on Easter Sunday, involving a bishop exploding a cartful of doves?  Or something.

Which does not explain why, at 11:27, the distinctive sound of fireworks sputtered through the rain.  His reply: “you can always see it next year!”

1:00 Having pretended to be part of a nice family I’d met, I skipped the hour-long line to see Michelangelo’s David.  Which changed my entire perspective on art.  It was by far the most amazing thing I saw in Europe.  Everybody has seen replicas in their favorite pizza shop, but trust me: they do not hold a candle to the real thing.  I spent a good 30 minutes standing in one place, staring, open-mouthed.

The rest of the day passed in an exhausted, rainy blur, until, at

5:30 I finally found a coffee shop to spend the last hour before my train left in warmth.  I ordered a cappuccino, then as soon as they brought it, realized that it cost six euros.  Yeah, that’s right, 10 bucks for a friggin cup of coffee.  I tried to nurse it as long as I could, but eventually had to peel myself out of my chair to go catch my train.  As I came out of the bathroom in my exhausted stupor, one of my two bags caught on the doorknob and fell.  As I whirled around to pick it up, my laptop fell, too.  Embarrassed but still trying to pretend like nothing embarrassing was happening, I picked them both up.  And promptly dropped them again.  Having noticed that a nearby French family was giggling, I turned even redder, as I bent down for a third time, and knocked over a large metal garbage can.  Which sealed my fate by producing a gong-like sound as it broke into two pieces.

I had no other recourse at this point but to burst into (slightly hysterical) laughter.  Leaning against the wall for support, tears rolling down my face, I glanced at the French family, thrilled to find that they were laughing, too.  As was the entire cafe.  Waiters hurried over to help me piece together the garbage can and hand me my bags, with many “don’t worry about it”s and “no, really, we don’t need any help”s.  As I was leaving, still bawling with laughter and followed by more eyes than I care to think about, I took a bow (careful not to drop my bags).

7:25 found me huddled in another train carriage, speeding (ok, more like sputtering for the price I paid) towards Milan, shooting apprehensive glances at the new man I was again alone in the compartment with.  Both way into sleeping, we independently decided to move when joined by a family with more kids than could fit in the postage-stamp sized compartment, and I jostled down the train, bumping into innocent passengers with my thirty ginormous bags, until we were unceremoniously told to sit down in the next available compartment, which was, funnily enough, occupied by more kids than could comfortably fit.  But at least these ones were cuter.  I spent the next three hours being talked about in Italian (again, far easier to understand than to be understood in; foreshadowing again?).

10:17 saw me arrive in Milan, instructions to the hostel clutched in my sleep-deadened fingers, confident that I could easily maneuver the two trains and one tram it would take to get me to the end of the directions, which doesn’t explain why at

11:08 I was unceremoniously kicked off the tram that was supposed to be taking me there.  I had hustled onto said tram after waiting thirty minutes on the wrong side of the street, realizing my mistake, just missing the tram going in the right direction, waiting thirty minutes in the freezing cold, getting on and pretending that the ticket I had wasn’t expired because I was too tired to figure out how to buy a new one, then realizing I had no way to determine when I’d gone two stops if I was the only one on the tram and it was only stopping on request.  Solution: push button once, wait for first stop, play confused tourist (easy!) when doors open in front of me but I don’t get off, wait for doors to close plus decent grace period, push button again.  At which point, the driver, clearly completely aware of my whole silly act, slams on the brakes, opens the door, and doesn’t move again until I get off.  Nowhere near my hostel and without walking directions to get there.

So…at 11:15 I knocked on the door showing the only signs of life around, which was opened by a moving-picture-perfect Italian doorman, who obliged me with a bumbling, pidgeon Italian-Spanish-English conversation about who I was and where I was trying to go, made a few phone calls, and directed me down two streets and a five minute walk.  Grazie-ing profusely, I stumbled out of the door and down the streets of Milan to fall, far, far later than my bedtime, into bed.

Whew, what a day.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a nice, long, relaxing sleep after that?  Sure would.  Too bad I was up at 4:30 the next morning to catch my train to Venice!

I really, really am a masochist at heart.

I won’t say too much about Venice, except that everything they say about it really is true: you’ll get lost, you’ll be amazed that the whole town is caught in a fairy tale and yet still doesn’t hesitate to charge you ten euros for a calzone (damn good calzone, though), you’ll see gondoliers, blah, blah, blah.  I always thought that Disney was a phenomenon relatively contained in America, with that notable mistake Eurodisney, but Venice made me think otherwise: what with the prices, the painfully consistent Venetian theme, and the elbow-to-elbow traffic, no matter which winding alley you turned down, I really couldn’t tell the difference between Epcot and the old town.  But I did spend the six hours I was there for happily meandering around, eating gelato and basking in my last Italian sun.  Or rather, rain.

Having decided not to pay the overpriced hostels in Venice, and desperately wanting to stay two nights in one place, I returned in one piece to Milan that night, showered and packed, finished my ten euro calzone, and crashed, only to wake up early again the next morning to catch my flight to Barcelona.

Stupid airport mistake number two: assuming that, just because the security lines in all the other airports thus far have been non-events, the one in the titchy little Milan airport will be similarly negligible.

I arrived three hours ahead of time.  I checked in.  I tried to find more pizza (even at 8 in the morning).  Then I sat, basking in the joy of finally not having to move for a few hours, until my alarm went off (see! I was taking extra precautions!) 45 minutes before my flight left so I could make my way to the gate from the seating area.  I found myself momentarily panicking at the line for security, but, realizing there was nothing I could do about it, took a deep breath and waited, and hoped, until I reached the front with 15 minutes to spare…only to see a sign on the metal detector: Security Line B: for all domestic flights.  And a similarly blasé sign pointing to significantly longer Security Line A: for all international flights.  AKA, Barcelona.  Thanks, guys, for making that clear only at the front of the line.

Unable to really get a grip on my fear now, I hurried to the end of the other line, knowing that I hadn’t a hope, when I spotted a quick-pass gate, staffed by a flight attendant, intended only for first-class passengers of a certain airline.  Crossing my fingers, I held out my ticket, quietly explained my mistake, watched her purse her lips, and, miraculously, wave me through.  Wherever you are, randomly kind woman, thank you, thank you, thank you.

So I made my flight, made it to Barcelona (which you should all be pronouncing in your heads Barthelona), made it to my hostel, and crashed on my bed to finally read up about the city with which I was soon to fall deeply in love.

I have very few words to describe my enchantment with Barcelona.  Honestly, I’m not even quite sure where it comes from.  I know that it’s mostly the responsibility of the architect Gaudi, whose stories-high works of art saw me actually on the verge of tears, standing in the middle of the ongoing construction of La Sagrada Familia, laughing aloud at the eternal vagary of Parque Guell, and eagerly scraping together the last 98 euro cents I would spend in his most perfectly delightful market.  But I don’t know why two days of constant sightseeing, something that, when done alone, I had long renounced as a productive way to travel, left me consistently moved to tears or laughter.  I guess it was that by that time in my trip, I had finally mastered the art of traveling cheaply yet happily, at least as much as it can be mastered.  Barcelona was my perfect playground, a flirtatious finale of everything that is good about traveling.

I also bought my sister a guitar, handmade in Spain and hand-carried through five airports, for her birthday, which I’m still considering keeping.

Needless to say, I was flatly surprised to find myself unceremoniously boarding the plane for the last time (save five changes…damn cheap tickets), neither sad nor happy to be writing the final the end on the last vacillation of the story that had been my life for six months.  Not that I ever do finish traveling, really.  Or writing my story.  So isn’t it appropriate that I’m only finishing recording all of this (which has been more for me than for you all along, I’m afraid to say), almost exactly a year from the day I first left for Ireland?

…but wait…what is that unsettling little tickle I feel as I sign a year-long lease on a house in Seattle…?  Something tells me this blog won’t remain dormant for long...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

In conclusion...

A lot of people want to know what I've learned from my travels. I think, more often than not, what they're really seeking is some soundbite of what the Real World is. That, my friends, I definitely have no idea about. When people ask me where I went, I struggle with the answer, because, honestly, did I really go anywhere? I don't say that I have traveled; I'd prefer to say I've visited, in the same way that you visit a distant relative and leave the next morning without any idea of who they are. But, if you are interested, and can make anything out of it, here is a recent email that I wrote to my friend and travel buddy Maya, on how I find returning to Seattle. Also, look for another post in the next few weeks about my last tumultuous week on the road.

It's really, really strange to be back in Seattle, jumping back into a life I can barely remember and a little frightened at how easily some of my old, static patterns return to me. Traveling for so long unavoidably changed me, of course, but some of the things I hoped to overcome just snapped back into place. I get overwhelmed so easily! It's so easy to lose track of the things I discovered were important, so easy to ignore the present in the constant pressure to focus on tomorrow's paper, next week's obligation, next year's situation. There's the constant pressure to party and be my old self, yet my constant desire to transcend all that and focus on what's important to me: the feeling of sun in my hair and earth in my fingernails, and the sound of leaves rustling in the unchanging happy and unworried breeze... and what does this result in? An underlying loneliness that has nothing to do with how many people I'm around or who likes me. A classic existential quandary.

But more or less, day-to-day, I'm doing quite well. Actually, I've never been better. And just the ability to feel such complexity is a great gift that I treasure, even while I hate it. But being back in school is a mixed blessing. I love the intellectual challenge and have that renewed burst of enthusiasm for school and studying that I was hoping for, at the same time that I resent being here, forced by my ever-growing to-do list to step out of the present and feel anxious. I'm not a free agent anymore. It's a hard pill to swallow, knowing what's important to you and the steps you want to take to achieve it, yet knowing simultaneously that school is something you have to do, now. I guess. I forgot how frustrating not being on your own schedule is, which constantly leaves me thinking petulantly, "war and deterrence? really? how does this honestly relate to inner peace?"

By the way, I really really enjoyed your last email. And all of your other emails, too. You're such an amazing creature. What you were saying was a great addition to this inner dialogue and conflict I've been having recently about travel, as two of my friends have received the bonderman (20,000$ to travel for 8 months or more continuously by yourself), and I've been so conflicted about whether or not I ever want to travel again. A large part of me says, NO! That soul ripping loneliness is not worth it, don't don't DONT put yourself through that again! But then something else pipes up, something fed by all my friends who are traveling and write me messages and all the bonderman blogs I've been reading, the same something that compelled me to go on this trip even though I couldn't elucidate my reasons, which says, oh actually....might be a pretty good idea. You know you love it. You know that loneliness, that suffering, if taken in overwhelmingly large quantities, is the only thing that can burn up everything else that's unimportant: your ego, your thoughts, all those extraneous bits of you that get in the way of your peace. Yeah, it's a contradiction to put yourself into the midst of confusion and frivolity and waste and ignorance in order to solidify their opposites within yourself. But hey, kid, if you've discovered one thing in the world, it's that contradiction reigns supreme.

Hope that answers your questions. Certainly doesn't answer mine.

Signing off,

Sunday, March 9, 2008

One post in three months? That's not shameful at all.

You may all want to count yourselves lucky that I have less than three weeks left in my travels, so you won't have to continue to be frustrated with my disgraceful apathy towards this blog. Suffice it to say that my grandmother, bless her heart, has shamed me into writing one last post before I mosey on out of Granada next Tuesday.

Things that I have done in the last two months since writing: visited Paris, Portugal, and almost everything noteworthy in Andalucia; finally booked something more than three days in advance; turned 21; become chronically lazy; learned a LOT more Spanish.

On weekend travels: continental Europe is expensive. Though I thought that I could continue my 35-40 euro a day budget for cities, spending five days in Paris over a long weekend nearly broke the bank. By now I have accepted this, but it caused me, to a certain extent, to curtail my forays outside Spain and concentrate on cheaper exploits, like going out for tapas instead of taking the bus to Salamanca. However, I am very glad I went to Paris--after spending more months out of the US than in it last year, I was pretty jaded to visiting famous, exciting places, so when the prospect of visiting Paris made my heart pound and stomach leap, I knew I should go. On retrospect, those sensations may have simply been caused by the Spanish coffee, which is so strong and viscous that when you swirl it around, it coats the sides of the glass like wine. Connie would love it. Anyway, five days in Paris were enough to make me jaded again, because it's hard to imagine much that can compete with Versailles and the Louvre. By the way, remember how I've never been a great fan of visiting art museums? (Sorry, Tori and Grammy Joanne...) Paris changed my mind. It started with the Musee D'orsay, which I visited to look at the amazing old train station that it is built in. When I realized that I was actually enjoying myself, I shuddered inside, thinking something along the lines of "I can't start enjoying art museums! Then I'd have to kick myself for all the great ones that I've missed!" But after spending four enthralling hours in the Louvre, I was hooked. At least I can console myself with the knowledge that it took the art museum equivalent of crack cocaine to get me addicted.

To avoid writing the thousandth boring account of a college students' trip to Paris, I'm going to skip the rest of what we did there, except to answer this FAQ: did you climb the Eiffel Tower? No. Wanting to see the sunset, we arrived in the evening to find the guards closing the stairs for the night. Note to future visitors: the stairs to the Eiffel Tower close at 6. This was news to us. And even if they are still selling the last tickets at 5:58 (the time at which we arrived), they will not accede to your gentle requests (read: pleading) to be allowed to ascend, no matter how many lies you tell them about whose birthday it is. Well, c'est la vie. Jerks.

Portugal was a much smaller trip. I've fallen in love with the town we visited, Oporto (might be just Porto in English, but now I've mixed them up and can't remember). Northern Portugal was the home to the original Port wine, something I've grown to hate a little after three (free!) wine tours. But Oporto didn't just give us plenty of cheap sweet wine; it also gave us plenty of cheap sweet pastries. This is another thing that the city is known for, and I definitely took advantage of it. And I'm OK with the fact that I went an entire day eating nothing but pastries. My stomach wasn't, but I was.

The weekend of my birthday (last weekend, to be exact--see? I'm finally catching up in my blog), Alex and Hayley and I rented a car to drive all around Andalucia, Spain being the first country I've visited that I've judged safe to drive in. Our first stop was Guadix, a city of cave homes where part of the first Star Wars trilogy was filmed. From there, we moved on to las Alpujarras, a collection of picturesque, typically Andalucian mountain villages sequestered like a squirrel's cache into folds of the Sierra Nevada's many valleys. Though we intended to spend the day village-hopping, we actually only made it to one, due to a combination of roads far windier and slower than predicted and being kidnapped for lunch. Anticipating a quick stop for lunch, when we got hungry we pulled over in the next village of maybe 50 houses. The only restaurant was in somebody's flat, where we were seated next to the boisterously lunching family and told that we were going to order comida de la casa. OK, we said, the gullible Americans we are. Four courses later, we were still not allowed to leave. Alex had gone for a walk, feeling a little ill and thinking that our release was imminent, and our gracious host refused to let Hayley and I pay the bill and leave before hearing from Alex's own mouth that he didn't want desert. When he returned, she coerced us into taking shots to toast el Dia de Andalucia. This would be a bit like drinking to Christopher Columbus day. At least she was kind enough, after we begged, to give us non-alcoholic liqueur. Finally, free to go...after paying the 49 euro bill. Had we thought it was going to be cheap because it was in a town so small that you could blink and miss it? Had we thought it would be reasonable because in several hours, we were the only customers during what is supposed to be the busiest time of the day? We did think so, and we were wrong.

Las Alpujarras left behind, we spent the night with Hayley's family friends in Malaga, and the next day on a nearby beach in Estepona, where I fulfilled my self-induced goal of skinny dipping on every continent I've been to. We spent the night there and sped on the next day to Gibraltar, Great Britain. Let me take a brief minute to explain the attitude of Spaniards to Gibraltar: they do their best to pretend that it doesn't exist. Buses don't go there. Road signs don't point there. If you tell a Spaniard you went there, they will answer with a derisive, ¿Por qué? But I enjoyed it immensely. We splurged on a 25 euro taxi tour of the rock, which is really the only attraction of the town. This tour included entrance into the caves and tunnels that the rock is riddled with, and the chance to have a monkey on your shoulder. Well worth it, I say.

We moved on that night to Seville. Unable to find our campsite after two hours of looking (another of the reasons I hate the Let's Go guidebook series: their directions are often just plain wrong), we were forced to find a hostel at the last minute. Hostels in Seville being the most expensive in Andalucia, we consider ourselves quite lucky to have escaped with only being charged 18 euros a person. The next day was my birthday, which we spend exploring the many monuments of this jewel of a town before heading over to a Cuban restaurant I'd picked out, which had so many vegetarian (and vegan! This is craziness!) options that I almost lost my head. I had what must have been the best food I've eaten in Spain along with sharing what would have been my first legal bottle of wine, if I'd been in the States. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect birthday, though I have to say, turning 21 loses its thrill when you're in a country where the drinking age hovers somewhere around 16. We drove back early so as not to be driving in the dark, and returned our car with a tearful goodbye to dear old Festy. Thank you, Alex, for some fantastic driving skills.

And those are all the exciting places I've been. In terms of future plans, I will be spending my last ten days in Italy, partly in Rome and party with a friend in Bologna. I'm particularly excited about this trip, because for what has to be the first time in my life, I actually know what I'm doing. I've ordered my Eurail pass with enough time to have it sent to me in Spain, I've booked every night of hostel, and had my airline tickets before they became prohibitively expensive. Ironic, isn't it, that this burst of nerve-reducing organization only occurs with my very last bit of traveling.

And so as I am preparing myself to say my farewell to Granada, I'm trying to decide what to take away from this experience. I came here with the sole purpose of learning as much Spanish as I could in three months, and I think I have accomplished that with more ease than I would have imagined. I am able to hold conversations on most subjects in several tenses, can do most of my listening without having to translate what's being said into English to be able to understand it, and have increased the time it takes me to read a page of Harry Potter in Spanish from an hour to 15 minutes. I, at least, am quite satisfied, and intend to continue studying when I get back. I also now want to go to Cuba to pursue Spanish further, partly because of that delicious meal we had in Seville, and partly because the US Government forbids it.

But was it worth it? On the one hand, I've spent the last few months being more superficial than I could ever have expected from myself. I have met very few people that I can hold serious conversation with, and have become so tired of being laughed at for asking people to shut the refrigerator door when they aren't actively using it, or to turn off lights, or to not leave the heater on all weekend if they aren't going to be there, that I've stopped asking, which bothers me a lot. I've spent a lot of money, which is OK but will probably require me to--heaven forbid--get a job when I get back. And I never really connected with Spain. I'll miss it, sure, but I don't know if I want to come back. This is partly because the values that Spain (or at least Andalucia) upholds just don't mesh nicely with mine, but it's also my fault, as I've been quite apathetic towards getting to know Spain.

But on the other hand, I feel that have accomplished what was, and still is, my only goal. I've made a lot of friends, some of whom I will keep back at the UW, and others I will leave in Spain. And, I've had a fantastic time. It's been a gentle re-introduction to being a student, and made me look forward to returning to Seattle. So of course it's been worth it. In fact, ha sido un rato de puta madre.*

*Please don't put this phrase into a translator. I don't think it translates, and you will think I am disgusting.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

New and Improved: Now Skypeable!

Without further ado, let me introduce some information that I expect you all to a) memorize and 3) (that's for you, Jerome) utilize daily:

1) My new Skype account: sbzellison
(I'm more excited about this any bit of technology that has entered my life since tamagotchis. For the first time in--how long?--I can talk to everybody who has been missing from my life, for free or cheap. This means you. Please, please, PLEASE let me know when I can call you!)

2) Numero de movil: (0034) 665 316 817
(Use to text me before we talk on Skype. Or, just to text and say hi, even though it's ridiculous and costs something awful like 15 euro cents to turn it on.)

3) Address:

Sarah Ellison
Calle de Santiago, 22 - 1(degree sign)A
18009 Granada, Spain

(Use frequently to send such tasty delights as chocolate bars, peanut butter, and tofu.)

En Granada
After a month in Granada, you'd think I would have at least been able to write you one paragraph about my experience here. Of course, you'd have thought wrong, but I wouldn't have blamed you for it. However, I refuse to make another excuse for my lack of blogg-age. Don't judge me (Rachel).

I'm currently writing this from my own computer (courtesy of Mom and Dad), which is very exciting for me, because all of the question marks and @ signs are in the right place for once. After God only knows how long of moving on average every 3 nights (final tally of beds I've slept in, by the way: 34 in 3 months), I have my own room again. I have posters on the wall. I have (gasp!) my own underwear drawer. But, before you all get jealous over my life of luxury here, let me also say that I have no hot water... and that taking cold showers is my Waterloo. So to speak. I'm not exactly sure why the scalding hot water in the kitchen refuses to reach the shower. Perhaps it's scared of it (I know I am). But when I asked my landlady, she said, "oh, I think that's just how it is in the winter" as if this was no big deal, you pansy. This means that, even though I have a consistent place to wash my four pairs of socks and am definitely not spending all day up to the elbows in compost, I still smell a bit like one of the piles of dog woopsies that grace the streets here. Well, you win some, you lose some.

Expecting to escape another rainalicious, Prozac-popping Seattle winter (so far I'm two for three), imagine my surprise upon arriving in Granada to find, despite the fact that it's less than an hour away from the Mediterranean coast and that my guidebook told me I could wear t-shirts in January, that it's--ahem--a bit nippy. Due to my propensity to pack exactly the wrong things, I spend most of my days huddled around the most ingenious Spanish invention ever: a radiator under a table with a heavy, floor-length blanket for a table cloth, under which you put your legs and immediately melt into a small puddle of joy on the couch. But it's not all bad; for instance, the other day my friend Hayley and I walked up to the Alhambra where, in the sun, I was able to finally chisel off my down vest and wear nothing but a t-shirt. Until I realized that I looked like a hobo in comparison to all the high-heeled, ridiculously-large-sunglass-wearing, flawlessly-made-up Spaniards.

I'd heard that Spain was, on average, poorer than the rest of Europe. To me, this meant that, just maybe, they weren't as ostentatious and fashion-oriented as, say, Greek women, who apparently melt like the wicked witch of the west if they don't have a new pair of designer boots every day. However, I think I've found out why Spaniards are probably poorer than the rest of Europe: they all spend their money on cigarettes, fancy bottles of wine at 10 in the morning, and clothes. Like fur coats...didn't those go out of fashion in the 60s? I feel like I should be walking around with buckets of red paint. Do I feel a bit out of place with the four shirts and one pair of jeans that I brought? ummm...maybe....

I study at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas for four hours every weekday, but as my one and only priority is to learn Spanish, I also study on average three hours a day in addition, and have, to date, five intercambios ("interchanges" involving meeting with somebody trying to learn English to exchange broken versions of awkward pleasantries). Except the usual number is one, at most. The result of this intense "lameness", as my frat-boy friends call it, is a solid base of Spanish, and a vocabulary that sometimes has my teacher relying on me in class to explain things to the other students, or to translate their questions. I think I may know more Spanish than my teachers know English... wierd. Conclusion: in a little under three weeks, I've accomplished far more in Spanish than I did in German in FOUR YEARS. I'm not sure if this is a testament to how poorly taught high school languages are, or how easy Spanish is relative to German, or how suddenly motivated (woops, I mean lame) I am after taking such a refreshing break from school, but either way, I'm very excited to be able to waltz into a store and ask, without needing to think too hard about it, if they have these boots in a size 40.

This is not to say that when I first arrived in Granada, I wasn't immediately terrified by the incredible difficulty of getting around. Of all the countries I've traveled to, Spain is definitely to most unwilling to learn English. Seriously, who do they think they are, not taking years of their education to learn a language in order to help out the tourists who saunter around without a drop of Spanish to their name? If it's good enough for the Germans, it should be good enough for them. Pssha, honestly. My lack of ability to say anything other than ¿habla español? (which I later found out is improper) led me to have an absolutely miserable first few days. Though, I suppose it also could have been the three days it took to recover from the most miserable international flight I've ever taken, and then the three days it took to recover from the most miserable stomach flu I've ever caught. Either way, I spent most of the first week huddled in the hostel, frightened of going out because I didn't know what to do in this town of scary Spaniards who weren't even nice to me when they realized I didn't speak their language. So obviously, it was a cinch to find an apartment. After going to the secretary at my school, where I had read on the internet (heaven forbid UW actually help us figure out what to do when we got here) that they would help us find a place to stay. This help turned out to be a list of numbers we could call to inquire about apartments...but out of the 15 or so numbers, only one spoke any English. The rest answered my nervous inquiry about English the same way you probably would if somebody called you out of the blue to ask if you spoke Spanish. Fair enough.

So, after four days of the most stressful apartment searching, I now live with that one bilingual española. Her name is Carmen, she's around 35, and she works with other American students at the University of Granada. The flat is great--only about five minutes from class, and with a rooftop terrace where I spend sunny afternoons with views of the Sierra Nevadas and the (occasional, haha) glass of vino tinto verano. Class is in the morning, after which I eat lunch, dink around, and take my siesta (just to be part of the Spanish culture, of course). I usually get up around 4, study for a while, then make dinner or go out for tapas...which, for those of you who don't know, are the hippest and cheapest way to eat in Granada, which is one of the only cities that offers these partial portions free with even a six-ounce glass of beer. Hayley (vegetarana tambien) and I have become pretty good at figuring out the only tapas bars in Granada that give something other than ham. It's a hard life.

And that's a short synopsis of what my life will be like for the next few months! On the weekends, we take trips here and there (a few weeks ago we went to Cordoba, and this week we're going to Paris for five days). By "we" I mean the few other UW students I've met up with. In terms of friends, 98% of the people in my classes are other white American girls, and the Spaniards we meet are mostly disinterested in making friends with Americans, who I think are seen as mainly not worth the effort. But Granadinos are renowned throughout Spain for being aloof and unfriendly to strangers, a reputation I've definitely encountered to the tenth degree. I think I can count on one hand the number of smiles that have been returned by people pushing past me on the narrow sidewalks. However, Hayley and I do have one non-American friend, a friendly Moroccan shopkeeper who, upon hearing how difficult it was for us to find good vegetarian food, sympathized and offered to make us couscous. Speaking of which...

¡Hasta luega!

PS I've heard that it's difficult for people to post comments on my blog, so I've changed the settings for comment posting. Try, try again!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I'm sorry. No, really, I am.

Before I tell you about the last two months of my travels, let me just take a moment to sincerely apologize for the fact that I've only posted once since I've been gone. If it'll help, I'll promise you my firstborn. Or how about the pictures that I'll finally post at the end? Even though I thought it would be pretty easy to get into internet cafes once a week or so to update, that definitely proved not to be the case, as most of the farms I stayed on didn't have internet, and when I was able to get online I spent the time I had frantically searching for hostels or booking tickets. Yeah, that's right, you all take backseat to my desire to have somewhere to sleep.

So, since I have a lot of catchup to do and not much inclination to be as detailed as I was before, here is a (relatively) brief summary:

Part Four: Ireland, continued
If you can remember back this far (or are that interested in re-reading my blog) I left you all on the brink of meeting Kate in Belfast. After waiting for two hours in the freezing cold to meet her bus, I finally received a text from her saying that she was safe and snug in the hostel, and where was I? Eventually I forgave her for leaving me in downtown Belfast at midnight, and we enjoyed our time in the fascinating city, doing a lot of walking, only a little eating, and even less sightseeing (using a Lonely Planet guide four years old apparently does have its drawbacks). Deciding that we hated our hostel, we left for a nicer, but more expensive one across the street, and spent the entire next morning complaining to the very nice owner about how much money we were spending in this poor, but very expensive, city. Taking pity on us, Arnie offered us a modified WWOOF scheme--if we cleaned and did a bit of gardening, we could have a free room for as long as we wanted. Eagerly we took him up on the offer and stayed for a week in Belfast, forgoing Dublin and the Dingle peninsula (which was, according to Kate, the false pretense I used to drag her to Ireland in the first place). Arnie was an incredibly friendly host and took us sailing on the Irish sea. However, we did eventually have to leave Belfast for cheaper pastures (they don't get any greener in Ireland) and we found ourselves at Jeremy Baines' house near Bantry, in the westernmost corner of Co. Cork.

Jeremy's house was a WWOOF farm of sorts. He proclaimed himself to be an organic home designer, and his house was indeed beautiful, creative, and very green. However, Kate and I weren't happy at his "farm", as he had outright lied in his emails (ie "Sure, you can ride our horses!") and the living situation was less than ideal. To make a very long, unnecessarily drama-filled story short, we asked to leave after only a few days and shortly found ourselves exploring the Rock of Cashel, for centuries the nucleus of government, then religious power, in Ireland.

Part Six: Sunrise Farm
Soon we found ourselves in Limerick, intending to catch a bus to Skariff where our next farm would collect us. Unfortunately, as it was a bank holiday, the one daily bus wasn't running, so we decided to hitch. But, as it was still early, we first wanted to take a look round the city famed for its repulsion as a tourist destination. And, being the seasoned travelers we are, as we strolled back into the station to collect our bags after a good four hours spent killing time, I suddenly realized that the sun would go down in about an hour, leaving us with this simple choice: hitch in the dark to a hazy destination carrying 30 pound packs along an unknown route, or stop making stupid decisions. For once in my life, I chose the latter, and, unable to find a place to stay for less than 70 euro, we hired a taxi for the 90-minute journey to Skariff, which was still cheaper.

Sunrise farm was alright as a WWOOF place. We spent most of our time gardening, cooking, or using a mixture of hemp and lime the consistency of tuna mayonnaise to build a meditation hall. I would have enjoyed myself had it not been for constantly being told off for the most idiotic, irrelevant things: how we washed dishes, what shelf we put our shoes on, and breathing too loudly (no joke). The one redeeming factor, that made me reluctant to leave Sunrise farm, was the neighbor Pat, who owned between 50 and 70 free-roaming horses and graciously let us ride them whenever we wanted. So, I happily spent my afternoons galloping to town and back, all by myself as Kate was allergic. My happiest moment so far: riding on a bog road in the dark, watching the stars as I listened to Harry Potter and ate Irish chocolate. My definition of heaven, right there. But soon we left, a) because we were tired of being taken for granted and b) because we were ready to go see...

Part Seven: Dublin
Dublin! The city of endless construction cranes and kegs of Guinness. We didn't do a whole lot here, as we were tired from the last WWOOF farm, but Dublin does mark a milestone: the first time I've written my own day-by-day itinerary in order to make my time spent somewhere most efficient. Of course, I was under the influence of overly organized Kate, and we didn't actually follow the itinerary, but hey! it's a start! Since nothing too interesting happened here, except me getting the worst haircut of my life, I'm going to skip right along.

Part Eight: Athens (I can finally take off my longjohns!)
I arrived in Athens late at night, nervous about the language barrier. But as the plane taxied in, I saw an IKEA, and suddenly realized that all would be OK. Greece may not share the same alphabet, but some things are universal. Too bad it's IKEA.

Athens was great (we're in the middle of November, now). I loved the feeling of wandering down endless narrow streets only to turn the corner and stumble into a 1500-year-old temple. I loved the ever-present Acroplis, even though I missed the museum at the top. I loved the cheap food (1.10 euro for a gyro, and even though I don't eat meat, it was worth it). After all the pomp, rigidity, and cleanliness of Western countries, arriving in Greece, which is an interesting mix between global north and global south, felt refreshingly familiar. It's something about the nagging, sycophantic friendliness of the street vendors and all the feral cats that makes me feel right at home.

Anyway, after doing nothing much but visit the Acropolis and accessories, take the lamest fanicular ever up to a monastery with startlingly clear views of the Mediterranean, and putter around the streets with new friends, I met Maya and we left for another WWOOF place in the Peloponnese. It was a harrowing experience to get there, as all the information on the trains was in Greek only, and our tickets, sold literally two minutes before the train left, were also in Greek, with no explanation. This left us wondering, " long is it going to take? Where do we transfer? Why do we each have four tickets?" But we figured it out, after thoroughly irritating the conductor by asking, "Amaliada?" every fifteen minutes.

Part Nine: Amaliada
This farm was one of the better ones. Maya and I slept in the same bed (as the other one was constantly dripped on from a leak in the roof) in a straw-bale room down in the barn, sans electricity or hot water. As the barn was the domain of the dozens of cats and dogs, we couldn't leave our room without a few of them slipping in between our legs and diving for any food we may have left out--bread and cornflakes were their favorite, but they didn't turn up their noses at carrots or peppers either, which meant that we had to ask for far more food than we actually got to eat. We spent a good part of each day picking olives and horte, dandelion greens, of which the family consumed incredible amounts.

Jorge and Jennifer had two girls ages four and one and a half, and while we were there they were baptized in an extremely orthodox Greek church. This was extremely interesting to watch, mostly because of the incredibly ostentatious presentation of the girls. We were taken out to lunch afterward, and then went for a swim in the Mediterranean and walked back into town. Amaliada was tiny and we quickly made friends, including one boy who served us Gyros and then a few days later found us in a coffee shop, paid our bill, and sat with us--in virtual silence--for a good fifteen minutes, too shy to say much. I only wish I knew the Greek word for awkward...

At the baptism, we met some American expats from Seattle, who took us under their wing and to ancient Olympia, where the first ever games were held. Maya and I took a lap around the stadium, of course.

We stayed here for a good two weeks, eating delicious fresh food drowned in olive oil and drinking their homemade organic wine. Maya left for another farm while I stayed for another (suddenly lonely) day before heading off for a short few days of sightseeing.

Part Ten: Nafplio
In Nafplio, I stayed, for the first time in months, all by myself in--gasp!--a single! I spent a few days exploring the narrow, Italian-esque alleys, snacking on Spanikopita and avoiding the very...."active" Greek men. The highlight was climbing the 999 steps up to Acronafplio, the fortress of Palamidi, which was absolutely deserted. I enjoyed exploring on my own, feeling as if I was the first to stumble upon ancient, muddy cisterns or pitch-black, crumbling tunnels. After getting a nice tan in one of the first really sunny days in Greece, I took a long walk along an orangey-red cliff being bombarded by the green Mediterranean.

Part Eleven: Surprise ending!
The next day, I headed back to my hostel in Athens where I took a quick trip to the National Museum to see what had been excavated in all those great ruins I'd been exploring, before heading off for an early night, as I had a flight to catch the next morning! At 6am, I took off for Munich, then Denver, and finally Spokane, where I enjoyed some much-wanted home free food and sleeping in. Christmas with the family was just what I needed to recharge my rather jaded batteries before my next adventure--three months in Granada, Spain, intensively studying Spanish. Hopefully, I'll live in an apartment with Spanish-speaking roommates. In fact, I leave tomorrow! And before you ask, yes, I am planning on returning for Spring ticket flies me back into Spokane on March 27th, three days before the next quarter starts.

I'll try to keep you updated, but you know what that means...

PS I have finally, under much nagging, uploaded my pictures onto the internet. They are on Facebook, for those of you who have it. (Whiny Sydney, this was for you.) For those of you who don't, here are the links to my albums:

Ireland and London:

WWOOFing in England:

Northern Ireland:

Cormac and Seamus's Adventures:


Sunday, October 7, 2007

This is me updating regularly*

Quite a bit has happened in this first month of my adventures. I'll just give you the highlights...

Part one: Ireland (already long, long, ago)
I met Connie in the Seattle airport, after staying up all night writing emails and wishing I had a garbage compactor to fit everything in my pack. Fast forward three airports, three busrides, and THREE DAYS later, and we finally arrived in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland, our first (and only) planned stop, which was well worth the incredible hassle and stress it took to travel there. From here, we started walking. Our first day took us over pastoral, stone-walled hills, through lanes buttressed by high fuschia hedges (still in bloom), along gently curving sandy beaches, past ancient monastic beehive-shaped huts and postcard-perfect views of the Blasket islands. Thirteen miles later...we arrived at our B&B, absolutely thrilled (I promise, the thrill was somewhere under all that weary soreness). As far as I was concerned, everything else our walking tour would take us through would be icing on the cake.

The company we hired to organize the tour for us took care of everything from providing transport for our (35 pound) packs to trail notes (follow the low stone wall until you reach another stone wall, whereupon you turn left into a field...). Our first day in Dingle, we arranged with the company to organize a post-Dingle extension to the Burren in County Clare, and then transportation back to Dublin for our flight to London. Basically, this company took care of all the stressful planning and thinking bits, and we were allowed to wander freely to our next destination.

After a day-long trip to the Blasket Islands, we set off again for our next B and B, a further 9 miles away. So the days passed, with beach walks bleating sheep, sunburns and sugary tea. We were extremely lucky to only receive one morning of rain, the rest of the days being mostly sunny, making the several pounds of rain pants, jackets, umbrellas, long johns, hats, gloves, and emergency ponchos we brought seem happily superfluous. After another day in Dingle town, spent poking around their shops and eating a ridiculous amount of delicious vegetarian food, we set off for Doolin, County Clare, a few miles from the Cliffs of Moher. Bypassing the national matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna, we were dropped off right in front of our B and B, Riverfield House, which looked great...from the outside. To make a long story short, Riverfield was quite a disappointment, and we left the next morning for a private room in a hostel instead. Doolin was much the same: sounded great in theory, looked alright at first glance, but quickly disenchanting, no matter how many second chances we gave it. We did enjoy a nice long walk down to the Cliffs of Moher and leisurely teas in the only nice cafe in the entire town.

Soon we were on our way to Galway, which quickly rose in my estimation to my second favorite city (after Seattle, of course), where we enjoyed deeeeeelicious fresh baked scones and jam, among other unforgetable meals. The next day we were off again to our airport hotel in Dublin, where we would spend the night packing our extra bits into a new duffle bag which Connie graciously took back, in order to save my back. We said our tearful goodbyes in London the next morning, and she saw me off onto the Tube to find my hostel. Bye, Connie! I love you and miss you and wish we were still Dingle-ing together!

Part two: London

I'd been to London before, so I skipped the main sights and just went for the free first afternoon I lost myself in the Victoria and Albert museum, possibly the best museum in the world. One room has these huge plaster casts of famous destroyed buildings and monuments--giant cathedral walls stretching up 50 feet at least, tombs of forgotten knights and lords, Roman pillars so tall that they are displayed in three segments...

I stayed the first four nights in O'Callaghan's hostel, which was very expensive at £18/night, but still the best hostel I've ever stayed in. Maya came the next day and we proceeded to madly search for a WWOOF host, knowing that there was very little possibility of finding one on Friday that would let us come on Monday. Laura came the day after that, and it was a joyous reunion...but all too soon, she was away again. Laura, I can't believe you went to Africa!

Maya and I decided to leave O'Callaghan's when our booking ran out, as it was just too expensive. We found the cheapest hostel we could...which is something I'll never do again. As soon as we arrived at The 8, I knew we'd made a mistake. Not only was it an expensive 30 minute tube ride outside of city center, it was over a nightclub. After waiting for 45 minutes to be allowed to check in, we were shown to our room...our fly-infested, never-been-vacuumed, WTF-am-I-doing-here room. I'll skip the rest of the details and just say that we high-tailed it out of there the next morning, spending our last night in London down South in a far nicer district.

My favorite part of London: going to see Phantom of the Opera. Maya and I were so enthralled (and so downcast after The 8) that we went to see Les Miserables, too, even if I had already seen it.

But pretty soon, a mere £220 later, we were outta there! And as much as I enjoyed it, I was pretty excited to leave.

Part three: Tinker's Bubble

As our first WWOOF host, Tinker's Bubble was a bit of a shock. We knew when we arrived that we were going to a community attempting to be sustainable, but we didn't know that this meant no hot water or heat. We borrowed a pile of blankets, thankful that we'd brought along our sleep sheets, and crawled into our long johns, not to remove them for a week. When showing us around, Mike casually mentioned, "And this is the bathhouse...if you're here for a week or so you can have a bath..." Ah. A week of farmwork and sweating with no bath? OK. Good. (Just for you, Leanne--they had some pretty sweet composting toilets.)

Mike also took us on a tour of the village, Norton-sub-Hamdon, a picturesque hamlet of honey-colored stone cottages. He drove us to the top of Ham hill at sunset, pointing across the pink-glazed hills and fields to two mountains on the horizon that were Wales. Oh, and did he mention that Ham hill was not only an ancient stone quarry, but also a ruined Roman fort?

Work at Tinker's Bubble was mainly gardening, weeding, apple-picking, scything away fields of nettle, and occasionally milking Millie the cow or Ruby the goat. It wasn't difficult, yet still was very satisfying, as we were able to spend all day in the sun (still no rain!) eating the windfallen apples or large chunks of organic cheese or bread.

Fun fact: did you know that a marijuana plant the size of a small house is required to supply 5 people with twenty joints a day? Neither did we, until we sat down right next to it. No wonder they aren't certified organic.

Part four: West Lynch Stables

We left Tinker's Bubble after about 8 days for a new place in Somerset, near Minehead and Porlock in the midst of beautiful Exmoor national park. Guy and Mo's main project was restoring the Victorian water wheel they had searched for in order to provide all their own energy. Therefore, my main occupation was to muck out the bottom of the wheel pit, which had accumulated 150 years of gravel, bricks, compost, garbage, pottery, and rocks rocks rocks, all sitting in about half a foot of muddy water. After shoveling out a bucketful, the bucket had to be hauled up 20 feet to be dumped into giant bags which were later hauled away. Therefore, each pound of muck had to be lifted three times, and in four days, I participated in moving about eight tons of the stuff. If you listened closely, you could actually hear my muscles growing. Other projects at West Lynch included egg collecting and puppy-minding, weeding and wall repair.

Part five: Ireland (version 2.0)

I was quite sad to leave as I'd found a comfortable niche, with my own bed and hot showers, a lot of company from the three other WWOOFers staying there, and as much sarcasm as I could handle. However, I did leave last Thursday to do a few Servas visits in Northern Ireland, something I'd been hoping to do since I studied Irish history two years ago. At the moment, I'm sitting in my hostel in Derry, realizing that nothing is open in super-religious Northern Ireland on a Sunday morning, and therefor whiling away the hours writing to you lot. N.I. is much much poorer than the Republic (though far more expensive), and this is obvious in the grafitti and disregarded buildings. Most of the towns I've been through remind me of Spokane in their concrete buildings, empty streets, and lifeless, cookie-cutter suburbs. It's not a nice place to be, but it's good to see what happens to a place after hundreds of years of neighbor-vs-neighbor conflict and constant fear of violence at the hands of either British soldiers or IRA militia. I've had a fantastic opportunity to discuss the violence with Bert and Donna Weir, my Servas hosts. Though he never directly said it, I'm pretty sure Bert was a former IRA fighter, now turned peacemaker, and it was fascinating to hear his rendition of events and stories of the bad old days. Donna and Bert were incredibly hospitable, picking me up in Belfast so I didn't have to take the 45minute long busride, and the next day helping me catch the bus to seaside Newcastle so that I could climb Sleive Donard, the tallest "mountain" in the area at 860 meters. Needless to say, the view from the top was gorgeous. I could just make out Scotland and Wales through the clouds hanging at eye height, and I couldn't have been happier as I ate the goat and sheep's cheese sandwich and drank the flask of tea Donna prepared for me.

I'm planning on meeting Kate, another WWOOFer I met at Guy and Mo's, in Belfast on Monday, which we will explore for a few days before heading off into the Republic for another week. We will then spend some time at a farm in County Clare, before I meet Maya again to continue our travels together.

I hope I'll be able to write again...eventually.


Beds I've slept in since September 5th: 19

*To be fair, once a month is still regular...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Where do I go from here?

I've met many new people this summer, and almost everybody asks me the same, seemingly simple question: when are you going back to school? Prepared for anything, I have two answers. If I'm with my mother, I grin as viciously as possible and cackle, "Never!" If I'm not, then I grimace nervously and sigh, "That's a great question."

The truth is that I don't know. I'm taking this year off--it's done, I'm committed, I've suspended my scholarships and bought my one-way ticket. The reason for this deviation from my four-year plan is manifold, but perhaps the simplest and most compelling was my utter frustration and despair at the end of last quarter. I was sick of Seattle, and the merest thought of another 15 credits come September 28th literally made me dizzy. Coming down from the high that was my winter, spring quarter slowly seduced me into day after day of same-old, same-old. I hate same-old, same-old. Three months in India (and then, three weeks of China) only whetted my appetite for a much longer break.

But it's not just a break (I keep telling my mother). It's a Learning Opportunity. As someone so aptly put it, college was interfering with my education, and I am ready to embrace alternative methods of learning. (I can practically hear her rolling her eyes now.) I won't just be bumming around wasting money, I'll be Doing Things. Like organic farming with an organization called WWOOF, and staying in the homes of peacemakers to learn about their lives--I'm particularly relishing visiting peacemakers in Northern Ireland. If I can find a good organization, I will also volunteer long-term with a conservation group (like Rachel did with the sea turtles in Athens). This winter, I'm most likely enrolling at the University of Granada to intensively study Spanish. Hopefully, this will mean finally getting to have a host-family. Before that, I will be visiting Ireland with my aunt Connie for two weeks, and we will be taking a short walking tour of the Dingle Peninsula. And, my friend Maya will be traveling with me.

And all this starts tomorrow, September 5th. I've just finished packing my bag, which, due to the fact that farming in England will be cooold and rainy in fall, is bursting at the seams. I'm nervous and excited, ready for it to begin and yet not wanting to leave home. Though it seems that I've been doing nothing but arranging things for a long time, I haven't been able to concretely plan much of what I'll be doing for the next month and beyond, and that is a very stressful situation to allow myself to enter. But I promise promise PROMISE to be as safe as possible, and to err on the side of caution. Part of the logic of buying a one-way ticket was to be able to buy one back home at a moment's notice if everything goes wrong. ...and all this starts tomorrow...

So if, over the next year, you'd like to see where I'm at or how I'm doing, please keep checking this website. I'll try my hardest to update it more than I did in India, if not regularly, and to add pictures this time. And, if you have been to Europe and have seen something spectacular, please let me know. Clearly, I have no pressing plans.

Wish me luck, and have a good year!