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.