Wednesday, January 27, 2010

# 5: A Clean, Well-Lighted Train Station

Arévalo’s train station sits atop a hill a half-mile from town, alone and tragic like one of Hemmingway’s short stories.  I was sitting by myself in the one-room brick station reading A Clean, Well-Lighted Place when an elderly man opened the door.  He walked inside past the ticket counter and sat directly beside me.  I glanced at the other three empty benches, then closed my book and greeted him respectfully. 

“Buenas noches,” he replied.  He was leaning forward in his chair with his hands upon his cane.  He sat there for a minute stroking his thick gray moustache in silence.  His brown tweed jacked was pulled taut by his paunch and his gray sweater was sprinkled with breadcrumbs.  His deep breaths smelt of anis. I opened my book and continued reading. 

What he said to me next I cannot recall, as our subsequent conversation was so peculiar that it overshadowed whatever small talk we may have had. 

“I am alone,” he said.   “My wife is dead.”  I offered my condolences but he brushed them aside and cut right to the chase. 

“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.

“Not at the moment.”

“Then you are alone as well.”  He sighed and tapped his finger against his cane.  “Why don’t you have a Spanish girlfriend?”

“I just arrived three weeks ago.” 

“Ah, I see.”  The Old Man paused and stared at his feet.  He looked me in the eyes. 

“Have you follado a Spanish girl yet?” he asked, his eyes wide with curiosity.  I begged his pardon and he repeated and clarified the one question I had never expected a 75-year-old stranger to ask me.

I tried to evade his question.  He persisted.  The Old Man turned, leaned towards me, and continued in an excited whisper.

“Spanish girls go all night, don’t they?  Come on, tell me!  How many have you had?”

I reduced my Spanish proficiency and pretended not to understand. 

The door opened again and a girl about my age walked inside.  The Old Man straightened up and smiled, then followed her eagerly with his eyes as she walked past.  When she leaned against the counter to buy her ticket The Old Man couldn’t control himself anymore.  He elbowed me, pointed at her, began tracing the contours of her body with his wrinkled hands and longingly caressing the empty air.  He winked at me. 

She took her ticket and sat down across from us to wait for her train.  I slid away from The Old Man and hoped the presence of a third person would end this awkward scene.  I opened my book and continued reading: 

‘What did he fear?  It was a nothing that he knew too well.  It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada, nada pues nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada...’

The Old Man bumped me with the handle of his cane to get my attention.  I threw him an exasperated look.  He was holding his cane with the heel in the air.  His slid his right hand down the cane about a foot from the end and pointed his left hand toward my crotch. 

“How big are you?” he whispered.  His mouth was slightly ajar and his eyes were open wider than ever.  He slid his hand an inch closer towards the end of the cane.  ¿Asi?"

I looked at him closely and noticed again the breadcrumbs that covered his chest, probably remnants of his last solitary meal.  No wife to brush off his crumbs, no reason to look in the mirror.  I opened my mouth to say something but I pitied him too much to get angry. 

I stood up and said good-bye.  Mi tren viene ahora.  Cuidate.”

“Where are you going? Your train doesn’t leave for another 17 minutes!” he called after me as I walked outside into the cold.  I crossed the tracks and saw his black silhouette staring at me from the waiting room of the station. 

It was a cold, dark night and I could see my breath as clearly as the constellations above me.  I have eight months left in this town, I thought.  Lord, please spare me from such a fate. 

The light of my train appeared in the distance.  I tucked Hemmingway into my backpack as the train passed the factories, slowed, and stopped at the platform.  I swung onto the train and sped away from Arévalo. 

And so began my double life. 

#4: Mensaje de: Vodafone

Before we travel anywhere else, I want to take you back to the first few weeks I spent in Arévalo and retrace my steps to where I am today. 

The old section of Arévalo may revolve around the main church, but the new part of town is centered around the bus station.  Arévalo is a minor stop on a major highway that connects Madrid to northwest Spain.  Every day ten buses pause here for a ten-minute pit-stop on their daily shuttle between the capitol and the university town of Salamanca. 

On the eve of my third weekend in Arévalo I spent an hour in a café studying Spanish and watching the buses pass by.   A Salamanca-bound bus pulled up across the street.  A few students got out to smoke and five cute girls came into my café and ordered coffees.  They circled around a table and sipped their drinks, smoking, laughing, and discussing their plans for the weekend, unaware that they had just doubled the number of available women in the town. 

I had no plans for the weekend.  There was only one other English teacher in town and the social life of Arévalo left something to be desired.  I had tried to make plans with some other English teachers in distant parts of Spain but nothing had materialized.  I was beginning to realize that traveling in Europe would require more advanced planning than backpacking in Asia.  

My cell phone vibrated and my heart jumped at the prospect of a message from one of my dozen friends in Spain.  I was so excited I almost threw my phone across the room as I pulled it out of my pocket.  The message read:

Mensaje de: Vodafone

Texto: 20% de saldo extra si recargas 20 euro o mas hasta…

Great.  The only person that sends me text messages is my service provider.  I put my phone away. I watched the girls finish their coffees, pay, and walk off chattering to each other until they were back on the bus on the highway on the way to Salamanca to apartments to classes to engagements to friends to life to anywhere but here.  Gone. 

I was alone again and surrounded by old men drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.  I slid a coin across the bar to the waiter, grabbed my coat and left.

It could be worse, I thought as I walked outside and turned towards the park.  When you don’t get what you wish, at least you get an experience.  Maybe the slow rural life is just what I need after a year and a half of restless wandering.  I had been repeating this to myself for the last three weeks but on that day my mind refused to accept self-delusion. 

Such rationalizations had worked in the beginning.  Maybe I had just been too disoriented to know where I was.

Disorientation is the best word to describe my arrival in Arévalo.  I was greeted at the bus station by the head of the local high-school, immediately taken to my host family’s house, and dropped off in the heart of España Profunda. 

I remember that first week of total immersion in as an incomprehensible blur of Spanish punctuated by the occasional familiar word.  I kept my nose buried in a pocket dictionary and survived by a combination of sign language and grunting noises.  I was introduced to the local kids my age and dragged around to the bars like some dumbstruck caveman.  I understood practically nothing that was said to me.

After a week I started to make sense of the world around me.  I got my own apartment with three Spaniards and unpacked my backpack for the first time since graduation 18 months earlier.  On my second weekend I called up the local boys and went out to a barbeque and back out on the town again.  We went to the same bar, the same disco and saw the same people.  I realized my biggest problem was not the lack of people (after all, 7,000 people is quite a lot).  It was the lack of young people.  My town was entirely comprised of newly-weds and nearly-deads.  Everyone between ages of eighteen and thirty had moved to bigger towns for university, work, or excitement.  Everyone, that is, except me.  

Boredom appeared and began to follow me like a shadow.  I threw myself into books.  Each day I studied and practiced Spanish for hours and hours until my head hurt.  I was determined to use my free time to learn to play an instrument.  I picked up a Spanish guitar and I haven’t put it down since. 

I went to work four days a week and accustomed myself to having a schedule after a year of traveling.  I got to know my students and picked up a few hours of tutoring to supplement my meager paycheck.  I started going to the gym.  My schedule slowly filled up and I finally felt busy.

Then two of my roommates suddenly moved out at left me with Jesús, the quietest of them all.  One of them took a job in another town and the second couldn’t stand the boredom and loneliness of Arévalo.  I was left alone in an empty apartment with Jesús.

I found this Jesús a little less interesting than his namesake.  He could not turn water into wine nor hold a conversation for more than two sentences.  And because our electricity bills were now split by only two of us, he imposed a nightly black-out upon our apartment.  I searched the sky for bombers but I heard no air-raid siren. Without my other two roommates for entertainment, boredom finally caught up with me. 

I had to get out of Arévalo.  I turned a short trip to nearby Ávila into a long weekend and hung out with the other teachers from my program.  I spent two nights going out with a mixed crew of Americans, Germans, French and Spaniards.  With 60,000 residents, Ávila seemed like New York City compared to Arévalo. 

Then, a week later, as I wandered around town, I was facing the prospect of another weekend in Arévalo.  I walked to the edge of town and watched the buses and cars heading north to Salamanca.  I stood before a road sign of possibilities – Ávila – 47 km, Salamanca 110 km, Segovia 117...

I had to escape but I knew not where to go. At age 23, movement of any kind is progress.  My town was stagnating and I could not afford to let it slow me down.  I had to find a way to maintain my momentum.

Then my cell phone buzzed.  A text message from my friends in Ávila.  Would you like to come to Ávila tonight?  I put my phone away, ran to my apartment, packed my bags, and jumped on the first train south.

Friday, January 22, 2010

# 3: Dear Don Quixote...

Dear Don Quixote,

It’s January 21th, 2010 and it’s time to assess my dreams, both those realized and those still lying ahead.  If you were still alive (or ever alive) think you would be proud of how far I have chased my dreams, but I still have much further to go. 

2009 was a big year for dreams.  I bought myself a one-way ticket to Singapore and sought adventure across all of Asia.  I traveled by boat, train, bus, ox-cart, horse, and motorcycle and eventually wound up in St. Petersburg, Russia seven months later.  I wrote about it on my blog, Celestial Navigation, which you can read here if you have access to the internet in Castilla La Mancha.

In Asia I discovered my love for learning about cultures and languages through travel, so I came here to Castile to learn Spanish in its purest form, to use my pueblo as a base for exploring the rest of Europe, and to give myself time to write a book about my adventures in Asia.  This year is intended to be one of self-improvement, a year to cultivate my skills and pursue my greatest passions.  

I have been here in Spain for four months and I am quite satisfied with how my Spanish has improved.  Before I came here I could barely order a burrito from my local Mexican restaurant, but after months of self-teaching and practice I have reached proficiency and I am able to speak of more complex subjects.  Why, just last week I was able to explain to a friend why George Bush invaded Iraq – something I can’t even do in English!  I intend to study the language until mid-April, at which time I wish to begin studying French in anticipation of traveling through France this summer. 

Beyond the language, I have also picked up many Spanish customs, from playing the Spanish guitar, to the daily practice of the siesta, the paseo and saying “mañana,” to eating nearly-fatal amounts of chorizo and roast suckling pig.

I have traveled extensively within Spain through Catalonia, Castile and Andalusia.  And I have ventured beyond Spain many times in the last few months, to Lisbon, Paris, Brussels, and Ghent, including a week spent hitchhiking across Ireland with my good friend Hendrik over winter vacations. 

It has been incredibly fun, but I have more dreams that remain unrealized…I dream of finishing my English-teaching job in May and walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I dream of learning French, of spending the summer picking grapes in the south of France, of moving to Paris, of writing a book and getting it published and using my words to make a difference in the world and then, and then…Well, the list goes on.

Is all this possible?  Any of it?  I have already had more adventures than most; is it too much to ask for more?  Do all good things really have to end or can they actually get even better?  How does this story end?  What genre is the book of my life?  A romantic quest with a happy ending?  A tragedy?  An comedy of errors?  Or will my quest not even become a story in the end?  What is going to happen to me next?!?

Wait!  Don’t tell me anything!  I don’t want to know what happens yet!  Ruining the surprise would ruin my adventure! There is only one way to find out…

Well, Don Quixote, good chat. So are you with me?  Who wants to be my Sancho Panza?  You, reader from the blogosphere?  Alright, you will do, then. Saddle up the horses and let’s ride off into the sunset! 



#2: A Paseo through Arévalo

Each day before sunset the people of Spain traditionally leave their homes and take a leisurely stroll called a paseo.  I take my paseo at five in the afternoon and join the rest of the pueblo in their daily walk through our village, Arévalo.  I descend the steps of apartment to the street below and merge into the slow procession of townsfolk wandering through the old barrios, past the abandoned mansions of forgotten caballeros, around the crumbling churches of Catholic Spain, and towards the castle that crowns the northernmost tip of the five-pointed town.

As the sun dips below the horizon, I walk behind the castle that once housed Queen Isabella, stand at the confluence of the two rivers that encircle Arévalo, and gaze across the fields of Castile.

Castile, the heart of historic Spain.  It was here that Castellano, the language commonly known as Spanish, was born.  It was here that Queen Isabella and Ferdinand allied their kingdoms and swept the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula in the reconquista.  It was in this town that the Spanish and Portuguese divvied up the New World. And it was across the plains to my south that Don Quixote rode in search of adventure.  In those times Arévalo was a thriving village well situated between the economical and political centers of power in Madrid, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila and Salamanca. That was the Golden Age of Castile.

As dusk sweeps across the central Spanish meseta, I stare into the twilight and imagine the golden days of Arévalo.  I turn and face the castle and peer through the slotted apertures into the candle-lit chambers of Isabella and listen for news of the reconquista.  I sneak past the sentries and pull my donkey through the shadows and past the palacios of the gentry, deferring respectfully to the armored caballeros who ride past on horseback. 

The church bells ring loudly from the belfries of the town’s dozen churches, one for each of the twelve barrios as mandated by Isabella the Catholic.  It’s nighttime now and the paseo is almost finished, but through the mist I descry the stream of people ahead and walk towards them.  A string of lanterns holds the darkness at bay and a muted rumble of voices and laughter slips from the taverns and warms the night air.  I rejoin the paseo and follow the townsfolk down cobbled streets into the central plaza of Arévalo, Plaza del Arrabal.

The men of the town are gathered here speaking to one another and suddenly I feel out of place amongst the merchants and gentlemen of the town.  They discuss news from Madrid, trade with the Americas, war with the English and they gossip of their neighbors.  I sense them starting at me and I look down at my worn clothes and ashamedly try to sneak out of the crowd before I become the subject of more gossip. 

The Spanish are a sociable people, always gathering in large public groups and making it nearly impossible for the foreigner to make himself scarce.  But tonight I have it.  I escape from the plaza and round the corner to the calle principal, when an old man stops me and, not recognizing my face, inquires about my business in Arévalo. 

Buenas noches, Señor.  I am a humble English teacher in the secondary school.  I hail from the distant colony of San Diego, in California Alta and I am staying here for a year to teach the children of Arévalo the English language.  I have just finished my paseo and I now am repairing to my abode to finish the most recent work of Señor Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote.

Don Quixote!?!”  The viejo, exclaims.  “That Cervantes is as foolish as that character of his!  Why, I can’t understand why a man would spend the last years of his life writing about a buffoon riding across Castile tilting at windmills!  You are a teacher, my boy, why do you read such whimsical non-sense?  Surely you could be studying works of more importance, works of practical significance, works that would bring you closer to God!  Would you teach this garbage to Arévalo´s children?  And why would you teach them the language of our most hated enemies, the English?  And…”  …so on, and so on into the night.  I nod my head, and at the soonest opportunity bid him farewell and slip into the night fog. 

Don Quixote has a bad rap, I thought, What is so wrong about harboring romantic dreams of adventure?  The mist thins as I pass the last church in the beautiful old town and walk past the petrol station and along the park into the new part of town. 

To my right is a row of Franco-era apartments, many of them covered in aggressive graffiti – anarchist signs, crossed out swastikas and anti-monarchist slogans.

As I approach my building I am greeted by the stench of manure blowing across the plains from the wheat fields that surround Arévalo on all sides.  My fingers, frozen cold in January night, fumble with my keys and after a minute I enter my lobby, flip on the light switch, check my mailbox and walk up two levels to my door. 

It is dark and empty in my five-bedroom flat.  My only roommate has turned off the heater and lights (as always), ostensibly to save money but more likely to freeze his wacky roommate to death until he moves back to California.  I walk past his room, closed and locked (as always), and stick my tongue out at the green light spilling out from the television behind his door.  I throw my letters on my desk – all bills, no letters from damsels in distress – and collapse on my bed. 

I think about all my dreams, about traveling to foreign lands, sailing across distant seas, speaking exotic tongues, and writing words that change the world.  I wonder if these dreams will come true. 

Am I just hopelessly quixotic?  I stare at the ceiling, but the peeling paint offers no answer. Will my dreams surrender to rigid realities and prove to be nothing more than the chimeras of idealistic youth?  My roommate emerges from his cave and slams his door, loosening a flake of paint from the ceiling that falls falls falls down onto my cheek. 


I sit up and survey my room and wonder once again if life in a 7,000-person town is slowly driving me insane.  The piles of books heaped in huge teetering towers on the floor, a dozen corners of the room bedecked with trinkets from a dozen corners of the world, a massive California Republic flag, and a map of Europe tacked against the wall and perforated with a geographical to-do-list: pins poking across the continent, from the Basque Country to the Balkans, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, north to Norway and south to the Sahara.  My dreams have exhausted my supply of pins. 

Then there are the countless pieces of paper that cover the rest of my room like the crazed wallpaper of some Beatnik poet gone-mad.  About half of them were a collection of poems and quotations written by my favorite authors and, increasingly, by myself.  The rest of them are flashcards covered in red marker with commands (START WRITING!!!), questions (What is your book about?), themes (Search for individualism in modern society), chapters (Buying the Minsk - Saigon, Vietnam), topics (The Dalai Lama and China) and orphaned epiphanies searching for a home somewhere in the first draft of my first book. 

My roommate farts, and the noise bounces through my paper-thin walls, something that would make me smile if my situation were not so bleak. 

What the hell am I doing here? Am I ever going get this book together, or will I just get lost along the way? Is it even possible to write a book in such a stiflingly small town?  And if I get the book written, will it ever get published?

I have no answers, only the strange faith born from the audacity of dreaming the impossible.  I sit down at my desk, stare at the START WRITING!!! message on my wall and pick up a pen and paper.  Dear Don Quixote, It’s January 21th, 2010 and it’s time to assess my dreams, both those realized and those still lying ahead…

#1 Hola from Spain!

Hello everybody!  Welcome to my new blog, Un Idea Peregrina. 

You may have followed my travels through Asia last year on my blog, Celestial Navigation, or maybe this is your first time reading my work.  In any case, welcome to all. 

It has been a while since I have seen most of you, as I have spent the better part of the last two years working and traveling in India and Asia.  Now I live in a small town in Spain where I am teaching English and learning Spanish.

I left for Asia one year ago today.  I had a one-way ticket, a small backpack and a head full of crazy dreams, and I spent seven months chasing these dreams from Singapore through all of South East Asia, China, and Eurasia to St. Petersburg Russia.

Now, one year later, I’m trying to continue the adventures.  I’ve got big plans for the future but small-town life in Spain is not turning out how I expected.  When I accepted the offer to teach Spanish in a 7,000-person pueblo I figured it would be a nice, quiet place to learn Spanish and take a stab at writing my first book. 

I envisioned this idyllic little town where all the men spent the days lounging in the shade and draining wine skins while beautiful girls danced to flamenco music in the streets.  Thrown in a couple of bulls and matadors and you can imagine this Spanish Eden I had in my head. 

Life has dealt me a different hand.  I’m not saying the village is bad; it’s actually quite beautiful and peaceful.  Too peaceful. I’m going to go nuts if I stay in such a small town every weekend.  So I am forced to lead a double-life: part-time English teacher during the week and full-time adventurer on the weekends. 

So far my adventures have gone well.  I have traveled across Spain in my free time but I have many more plans in my head.  Maybe too many plans...  First I want to travel to…well, I am getting ahead of myself.  Perhaps I should explain the title of my blog before we go any further… 

But I am rambling, and it’s five o’clock - time to take my daily paseo.  What’s that?  You don’t know what a paseo is?  Don’t worry.  Come with me, I’ll explain the rest along the way…