Monday, October 10, 2011

This Site Has MOVED

Hey guys,

I have recently moved the website to a new domain -, which I think is an easier address to remember.

I hope you continue to follow my posts from my new site.

Happy travels!


Friday, September 9, 2011

Summer 2011 Update

Note: It's September and I find myself at my childhood home in San Diego for my annual 'visit' of my hometown.    Before I launch into a series of general-interest blogs, I thought I'd give a quick personal update on my travels.  So to explain how I moved from Spain to Argentina to the States, let's start the story three months ago, back in May when I was still living in San Sebastián...

Leaving The Basque Country...

I was getting restless in San Sebastián. After two years of a relatively settled life in Spain I was itching to get back on the road. At night I lay in bed awake, craving more certainty, adventure, and danger.

My closest buddies in San Sebastián
My life was moving in the opposite direction. I was making good friends in the Basque Country, starting to put down roots. My Spanish reached a level near fluency, and now the next step was Basque. And as my writing career continued to develop I began focus more and more and Spain, and I worried about getting pigeonholed. I wrote a guidebook on the Basque Country, opening up even more reasons for me to stay put.

Yet my soul respects no frontiers. Two years after my wanderings through Asia, I felt an irrepressible urge to pack my things in a backpack and go with the wind. I turned long weekends into freewheeling hitchhiking jaunts across Spain, doing whatever I could to hone my vagabonding skills. With my thumb out along the roads of Navarra and Aragon, I felt an inner peace and contentment I had almost forgotten.

With Friends in San Sebastián - Santo Tomás
Summer came quickly and the year was suddenly over. My lease expired on my apartment on May 31st and I had no plans henceforth. With no job and no apartment I knew I would have to get creative if I wanted to keep up the momentum. But what to do? Where to go?

The answer was clear in my heart: I wanted to sail. I'd talked to a few people who had worked as a deckhand – the entry-level position of seafaring – and heard stories of adventure and good pay, up to 2500€ a month with living expenses covered. I was sold - that was over triple what I made as an English teacher. I packed up my life in the Basque Country and booked a flight to Palma de Mallorca, with only a vague notion of how to make it happen.

Practicality has never been my forte. For one, I had very little money. San Sebastián is an exceedingly expensive city and my scholarship paid very little. Much of what I'd managed to save had been invested into writing my guidebook, leaving almost nothing for summertime adventures.

Moreover, over half of my savings would have to be invested in to a sailing certification called the STCW 95, a near requisite for sailors. But it was a “near” requisite, and I was determined to hold off on procuring the expensive piece of paper until I had both my feet on Majorcan soil. If I could become a sailor without dropping over half my net worth, by god I would save the silver.

Previous Sailing Experience
But there was an even larger challenge before me – my painful, glaring, complete and embarrassing lack of sailing experience. I've made some bold moves before, but this bordered on stupidity. Though I'd always harbored dreams of sailing the world, they'd remained just that – dreams. I'd failed to bring them from abstraction to reality. In fact, the only picture I have of me sailing sits upon my father's office desk - a ten-year old Marko piloting a dinghy across a lake, white knuckles gripping the helm, life jacket raising above my ears, and my mouth wide open. Screaming in terror.

In short, this would be a journey of personal growth. There would be obstacles to overcome, but after wrapping up my first guidebook I felt confident and ready for another challenge. Excited, anxious, unqualified and unprepared, I departed the Basque Country and flew to Palma de Mallorca

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Basque Country - Cuisine & Culture" Hits the iTunes Store

Hello everyone!

As an update to my previous post, I am proud to announce that my new guidebook, The Basque Country: Cuisine & Culture has just hit the press.  

It's available for download in the iTunes store for $2.99 - the price of a pintxo!  

You can read more about it on the iTunes store here.

Thanks for the support, and if you like it please leave a positive review here

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Guidebook - The Basque Country: Cuisine & Culture

The Basque Coast, near Zumaia (Gipuzkoa)
First off – I have an excuse for not updating this blog in a while.  It's a good one too.

For the last four months I have been devoting my heart and soul into writing a gastronomical guidebook about the Basque Country. As you may know, I have been fascinated by Basque culture ever since I first heard about the homeland of the nationless Basque people. Since arriving in San Sebastián I've done my best to soak up facts, stories and cultural perspectives on all things Basque, and this guidebook is the culmination of my curiosity.  Check it out here

The Basques are famous worldwide for their culinary prowess, and the area is home to more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. San Sebastián (Donostia) alone is brimming with Michelin starred restaurants and more pintxo bars than you could visit in a full fortnight of glutinous grazing. Beyond gastronomy, I've included historical anecdotes, a menu decoder and the most current insights on the local culinary scene so you know what to eat at which restaurants. 

Fishermen's homes in Hondarribia
Mine is not a traditional guidebook – it's an app for iPhones I developed with SutroMedia. It will be available for download in the iTunes store by July 2011 under the name “The Basque Country: Cuisine and Culture.” The fully interactive app has over 200 entries on everything from local taverns in Bilbao, splendid palaces in Vitoria, Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastián and up-and-coming chefs from small seaside towns like Hondarribia.

Traditional Basque farmhouse - un caserío
I fell in love with the Basque Country, and this guidebook is one written out of my passion for my host country. I intend not only to inform readers of their dining options, but also of the fascinating culture they are visiting. I hope that you all have the opportunity to visit the Basque Country in person so you can share my enthusiasm for this fascinating land.

And to conclude this self-plug, I'll throw in the text from the iTunes store below... ; )
Bogavante (lobster) from Restaurante Zortziko

The Basque Country: Cuisine & Culture
Life in the Basque Country centers around food. Spread across the French and Spanish borderlands and wedged between the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, the homeland of the Basque people is brimming with Michelin stars, tapas bars, and world-class restaurants. This app offers a practical gastronomical and cultural guide to this fascinating and ancient land as Mark Ayling takes readers to the nexus between venerable Basque traditions and latest culinary innovations they inspire. From medieval fishing ports to the gleaming Guggenheim, working-man taverns to the Michelin-starred restaurant of Juan Mari Arzak, The Basque Country: Cuisine and Culture has every angle of the Spanish Basque Country covered.

Pintxo, anyone?
Whether you're in search of white linen dining experiences or the perfect “pintxo” (Basque tapas), this app makes sense of a seemingly endless gamut of restaurants, bars, and wineries. Use Mark's reviews to locate precisely what you seek and compare photos of plates to narrow down your choices and read up on the latest culinary currents in the most dynamic gastronomical center of Europe. 

Hungry for more? Like with most things in the Basque Country, the first taste is never enough. So bite into this app and come see it for yourself.

*What's inside?*
- 200+ entries of restaurants, museums, nightlife, tapas bars, and historical sights
-1000+ photos of each restaurant's dishes/decór to better inform your decision of where to eat
- Interactive maps of the best bites nearest to you
- Detailed guide to “pintxo” (tapas) bars with photos of each pintxo and lists of the house specialties.
- Reviews of restaurants for every budget – from 3-course meals for 10€ to 15-course 200€-a-head blowouts
- Special section on Michelin-starred restaurants to help you decide what best suits your style and budget.
- Touristic and cultural sights with historical insight to demystify the ancient culture of the Basques.
- Menu Decoder to make sense of those difficult to pronounce Basque words!
- Reviews of 17 coastal villages so you can plan day trips or navigate the coastal road from Bilbao to San Sebastián.
- Save money with local €-saving secrets like the “pintxo pote,”the “menú degustación,” the “zurito” and much more...

Please understand that this guidebook includes plenty of reviews of sights and restaurants but NO INFO ABOUT HOTELS. Also, this first version of the app only includes the three main Spanish Basque provinces. It does not cover Navarra or the three Basque provinces in France.

Check the iTunes store in early July to download!

Surfing in Zarautz

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Career Chat

I wrote this poem last year whilst in the middle of arguing with the family about my chosen life path.  Though it was inspired by my own experience, don't worry, Dad - this isn't supposed to be you and me ; ) 
I wrote this poem to be read aloud but unfortunately I don't yet have a good youtube version of its recital.  So for now, I suggest you read it out loud and have fun acting out the father/son parts!  Enjoy!  

The Career Chat 
By Mark Ayling 
My dad took me aside today
To have a chat about my career
We sat down in his study
And he poured us each a beer

He took one sip from his glass
Then he cut right to the chase
He spoke to me in a serious tone
As he looked me in the face

Son, since you’ve finished school
All you do each day is think
You say you want to write a book
But your pen is full of ink

You’ve been reading lots of books
But I think it would behoove
You to stop thinking so much
And finally make a career move

I mean – did you really go to school
Just to work at a cafe?
When you could be a Wall Street banker
With a Harvard MBA?

And you live on the wrong side of town!
Your flat is a disgrace!
How the hell could you bring a girl
To such a low-rent kind of place?

Your friends are moving on
And you’ve fallen far behind
Ah! To think of all you could have been!
Yet you choose to waste your mind!

Well, I finished up my beer
I shook my head and sighed
And to my father’s sermon
I casually replied,

Yes, I’ve got a good degree
And my pick of fine careers
But the more I contemplate
The more complicated life appears

For I could have been a banker
But I would have been a thief
And I could have worked at an NGO
But that wouldn’t stop the grief

I could have been the President
But power does corrupt
And I could have worked for the CIA

But my conscience would erupt

I could have been a doctor
But blood just makes me faint
And I could have been a salesman
But that’s just what I ain’t

I could have been a soldier
Takin’ orders from the Top Brass
But within one month I’d be AWOL
And they’d be lookin’ for my ass

Or I could have been a lawyer
And get paid all day to lie
And I could have been a CPA
But I think I’d rather die

As prestigious as they are
These jobs are not for me
No, my mind seeks understanding
Not financial security

Besides, I don’t think too much
– The world don’t think enough!
Everyone just wants more cash
So they can buy more stuff!

So pursuing a career
Will only serve to distract
I’d rather bring my peers back down to earth
And show them all the facts

The facts?!? The facts?!?
Son, you’re too damn pensive!
You may have thought a lot
But you’ve forgot that life’s expensive!

So, yes, I could have read more books
Or even wrote a poem
But it wasn’t the ‘bohemian’ life
That paid for this here home

So, son, don’t you fret
The world ain’t gonna end
And life is not too complex
For you to comprehend

Life is actually quite simple:
It’s about baseball, sex, and beer
And it takes cash for all of that
– Make sure you have that clear

Just find yourself a job,
One that pays you well,
And don’t think too much about these things,
Lest you want to live in Hell.

Well I knew he had a point
But my heart could not admit
That They were right and I was wrong
So all I said was – Shit!

...Maybe you are right
Maybe I have been over-thinking
Maybe I should just get a job
Before I turn to heavy drinking

Maybe I should settle down
Find me a wife and kids
Start playin’ me some golf
And slide into the family biz

I could turn on the TV
Turn off the problems of the world
And forget about about all the thoughts
That my thinking has unfurled

But life just ain’t so simple
I can’t will my thoughts to stop
If I could see in black and white
Then I would have been a cop

And I don’t want to be a banker
I just want to be myself
Man’s path in life is not something
You can chose from off a shelf

So thanks for the advice,
But I’m afraid it don’t pertain
For I can’t save the world with cash
I can only use my brain

I’ll take the path less trodden
Though I know that most men don’t
But I’ve got the stars to guide me
While I’m rowing my own boat...

...Dad, I don’t ask for much,
Just that I may walk alone
I might end up rich...or in a ditch,
But I must find out on my own. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Respite from the Road

Waking up to an alarm gets easier every week.  Lately I’ve been waking up before my alarm sounds, walking in the dark to my balcony to watch the sun rise over the Pyrenees and into my room.  These days it’s the only time I have to myself.  

I wasn’t always so accustomed to waking up early.  After two years of traveling I’ve finally put down some roots.  My balcony looks over most elegant plaza in San Sebastian, Spain, the corner room in a massive flat I share with eight people from six different countries.  I’m not setting much aside for future travels, but the good life costs money. 

Even on this cold January morning in the Spanish Basque Country, I still consider myself a traveler.  It’s a different type of traveling now.  Though I don't get around as much as I used to, I keep one of the two beds in my room permanently reserved for visiting CouchSurfers.  It’s my way of giving back for all I received on the road.

Traveling is still on my to-do list, but January 24th is full of more immediate concerns. It takes a minute of flipping through my calendar until the significance of the date dawns on me -  the two-year anniversary of my ongoing journey passed by unnoticed two days before. 

The backpack I had left California with is now stashed under my bed, full of the things I know I won’t need for a while.  I had so much energy back then.  After college I’d bought a one-way ticket to Asia in search of adventure and terra incognita.  The possibilities were endless.  I was on my own and I had no plans or commitments, just a restless urge to read every page from the open book of the world. 

Church bells from the Buen Pastor Cathedral  sound nine times and bring me back to terra firma.  I close my calendar, wondering how I’ve been stuck on the same page for so long. 

I’m late for work.  I down my coffee and run to the stairwell, down four flights of stone steps and emerge into the arcaded Plaza de Guipuzcoa.  I unlock my bike and peddle between sandstone rows of neo-classical apartment blocks towards city’s immaculately arched bay, the Bahia de La Concha.  I pause to appreciate this jewel of the northern Spanish coast before pushing off towards the green hills across the bay. San Sebastian is not a bad spot for a vagabond to set up camp. 

There is, however, a spark of my restless spirit that abhors any commute, even one that takes me along such a gorgeous bay.  It looks disdainfully at the bike I unlock every morning for only twenty minutes, inevitably comparing it to the bike I had in Asia.    

That bike had a motor.  It didn’t have a daily commute and it didn’t like being chained up.  Riding a motorbike alone across Asia was a personal declaration of independence and freedom.  As I wind around the crescent-shaped bay towards work, I wonder if those days had been a zenith of youthful freedom, the beginning of the steady march towards commitments and responsibility. 

The bike and all it represented eventually broke down.  I had to continue by bus, like a normal person.  I was trading passport stamps for cash and soon I had nothing to trade.  By the end, my world of limitless possibilities had narrowed into a desperate search for work. 

That search eventually brought me here, to this high school at the western end of San Sebastian.  I lock my bike up and walk towards the mass of teenagers at the gate chatting in Spanish and Basque. 

“Kaixo, Mark,” one student says, “Zer moduz?”  My students say my Spanish is good enough, and that I must now learn Basque.  I patch together a conversation and write down a few new words in my notebook as we walk into the building. 

These are the trade-offs we make in life, I think as I climb to the third floor and set up my first class.  The profound discoveries of solo traveling for the smaller daily illumination of language learning.  I’d welcomed this change at the end of my travels, longed to stay in one place long enough to learn the language and culture. 

Class after class passes until the day is done and I am free again.  It’s lunchtime and all my roommates will be waiting for me to eat, but today I miss the solitude of the open road.  I drag my commute out, pushing my bike along the bay and watching the boats leave the port and sail out to the open sea. 

My boat is docked here for the time being.  I lock my bike up and walk up into my apartment, or as our CouchSurfing guests have dubbed it “The United Nations of San Sebastian.”  I hear the hum of tri-lingual conversation wafting from the kitchen and follow the scent into the kitchen. 

Perhaps everyone in my apartment would prefer to be traveling across each others'lands, but we do quite well here.  Living communally allows us to accomplish far more than we could alone.  We split costs and share our languages, cultures, and perspectives from aboard our static ship.  Trading some independence to share great times with good friends is a trade worth making. 

The afternoon flies by in the presence of my roommates, and soon it is time to fulfill my final commitment of the day, my private English lessons.  Two hours and four students later and I have about forty euro in my pocket. 

“Dinner’s ready in five,” shouts my English roommate from the hallway. “Oh, and you owe us thirty euro for the week’s groceries,” he adds. 

I hand him thirty and tell him I’ll be right out.  I have ten euro left.  I hold the red note between my fingers for a moment, then walk over to my shelf, pull down my favorite Paul Theroux book and add the bill to the rest of the cash hiding between the pages. 

The bills spread the barely noticeable indentation slightly wider.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to: Cross a Continent

Few people travel across entire continents these days.  It’s a shame.  Cheap airfares allow time-pressed travelers  to skip across our earth without ever seeing what lies between Point A and B.  But you’re different - you want to experience a continent in its entirety, to gain an intimate understanding of the land and her peoples. 

Traveling across a continent doesn’t seem practical to most.  You need a healthy streak of romanticism to undertake a voyage that largely disappeared with the advent of modern transportation.

So the key is to be a dreamer, albeit a practical one.  You must balance your vision of the possible with the limitations of the practical.  It will take imagination, research and some improvisation, but you can pull it off. 

There is no feeling more liberating than arriving at the tip of a continent with no fixed itinerary and nothing but a huge, bulging land mass rolling out before your feet.  You are free and your final destination is just a hazy image laying beyond a thousand unforeseen adventures.  So read this article, conjure up the wildest travel dreams in your soul, and figure out how to get yourself to that moment.  Let’s start with Step One:

Step One - Dream Big

It’s time to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder at the vastness of our world.  Put on your PJ’s, pull out the biggest maps you can find, and let yourself dream the impossible.  Run your fingers across the foreign-sounding cities and trace the courses of ancient rivers from their mountainous sources to the distant coastlines where they reunite with the seven seas.  All is terra incognita and you are an explorer on a mission of discovery.  The possibilities are endless and you are free to wander anywhere you want.  Where do you go?  What do you do? 

Chose a continent and then consider your starting point.   Some continents offer obvious starting points - Capetown to Cairo, for instance, or from the tip of South America right up to Alaska - while others require creativity.  Europe and Asia can be traversed in any direction or linked via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Silk Trail, the Hippy Trail, or any path of your choosing.  Get creative. 

Next create a bucket list of things/places you would like to do/see.  Again, don’t limit your options at this point - just dream it up, write it down and try to rank them.  Figure out where you must go and what you must do and then add in your secondary travel goals below that.  If you can, draw their locations on a map to help you naturally see where your route might take you. 

Continents are thematic by nature.  Finding a theme to unite your journey will help guide your travels and keep things interesting.  Easiest theme could be transport - following Route 66 in a convertible, crossing Africa in a Land Rover, walking El Camino de Santiago on foot, or touring India in a renovated rickshaw.  If you have a hobby, apply it in your travels - photographing smiling children in each country, learning a cooking recipe from each region, or sketching a new scene every day.  Your trip will end up much richer for it. 

Now that you’ve got all your wildest dreams written down, it’s time to meet Reality.

Be Practical, But Not Too Practical

The truth is, you won’t be able to do all that.  Sorry to break it to you.  But you can still do a lot - you just need to temper your dream with some rationality.  So bring your head down from the clouds and take out a pen and paper. 

Begin with research.  Start with the basics - your dates of travel, how long you expect to stay in each place and how much money you have to spend.  There will be visas, vaccinations, warzones to avoid and unsurmountable obstacles that must be considered.  But such a massive  voyage must be, by nature, mostly spontaneous, so don’t too get caught up in the details.  For now just get some ballpark figures so you can some gentle limits on your trip.

The perennial buzz-killers of travel dreams are Time and Money.  We tend to have either one or the other, seldom both.  More than Money, crossing a continent takes Time - much more than you think.  You will need to rest, you will want to extend your stay in some places and you’ll have some unexpected delays.  Stack as much paper as you can and beg borrow and steal as much time off work as reasonably possible.

Then find out how to turn your wilder dreams into realities.  This is where most people loose their gumption. Imagine, for example, you dream of catching the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Asia to Europe, as do many wandering the Asian backpacking circuit.  What separates them from you is diligent research - how to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get visas and cheap tickets through China, Mongolia and Russia.  Most give up when confronted with the complexity, others just show up cluelessly in Beijing and try to buy a ticket on the spot.  Don’t be like these people.  Do your homework and figure out how to make it happen. 

Part Three - Finding Balance on the Road.

You’ve dreamt wildly, calculated coldly and now you are ready to begin your adventure.  This is the tough part.  It is essentially a challenge to find balance - your romanticism versus realism, planning versus spontaneity, and finding the pace just right for you. 

First off, you must fight to keep the dream alive.  Fend off the naysayers back home and while you’re on the road - you’ve done your homework and you know exactly what must be done to pull it off. 

When you first start out, the distance before you will seem daunting.  Just remember the old saying on how to eat an elephant - bite by bite.  So just focus on getting from one city to the next and don’t lose faith in what you dreamt up back home. 

You’ll also need to find a balance between making plans and staying flexible and spontaneous.  Truly one of the best things about travel is the freedom with which you can move across the Earth.  Avoid tying yourself down with too many plans.  Ideally you can just buy a one way ticket and let the wind blow you where it may, though you’ll probably have to make a few reservations in advance.  Here’s my tip:

My personal philosophy is a combination of the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared” and the spontaneity of Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road.  I do my research so I know all the options before me, but I make as few advance decisions as possible.  When I come to a crossroad I know what’s possible to my left and my right but I don’t decide until I get there.  Otherwise you might plan to stay one month in a country only to decide you dislike it upon arrival.  You gotta preserve your flexibility. 

Above all it is a challenge of finding the right pace.  You’ve got a lot of places to see and only a fixed amount of time.  It’s kind of like life in that regard.  You will rush impetuously past some of the best spots and you will linger in cities that are proven mediocre by your later discoveries.  There’s no real way to avoid this, as learning how to move slowly and deliberately is one of the great lessons of travel.    It’s all part of the process.  Just set aside as much time for your journey as possible and try not to be in a rush. 

Setting Off

You’ve prepped, packed, and purchased your tickets to that distant locale.  You’re ready.   

And then you simply do it.  You make mistakes, discoveries, and friends.  You explore one country at a time and watch the flora and fauna change mile by mile.  Then you reach the end of the continent only to appreciate the significance of the old saying, It’s about the journey, not the inn, which would be cliché were it not so true. 
Earlier, I said that there was nothing better than standing at the edge of an unknown continent and marveling at the terra incognita stretching out before you.  That’s not quite true. 

What’s even better is standing on the other end of that continent, staring back to where you began and letting all the experiences you’ve just had rush over you in a flood of perspective.  Then you turn around, stare across the sea and realize the best thing of all - that there are still six more continents left.