Tuesday, February 23, 2010

#12 - Carnival in Cádiz Pt 2 - The Second Day...and Night

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m sipping a cafe con leche with Zubin and Taylor and recapping the night before.  I’ve already completed the Three S’s, but no amount of cleanliness or caffeine could rid me of my haggardness.  The alcohol has left Taylor and he is quiet and reserved once again.  It makes me smile to think that he was the belle of the ball last night. 

It’s Valentine’s Day and Taylor announces he is taking his girlfriend out to dinner tonight.  No Carnival for him.  Zubin has to catch a bus back to Madrid early tomorrow morning and he is on the fence.  I want to give it another go but it looks like tonight will be more-low key.  I suggest that since we saw Carnival by night today we should go check out Cádiz during the daytime.  We finish up lunch and meet up with Derek and Taylor’s Spanish girlfriend, Peli. 

Two hours later the five of us are riding the bus to Cádiz and making some tentative plans:  go to Cádiz, walk around a bit (just to “check it out,” of course) go see some of the notable monuments, the beach etc, then catch a bus back to El Puerto de Santa Maria at dusk and spend the night close to home so we can be “well rested” for the ride back to Madrid – a ‘mellow day,’ nothing more…

All these plans fly right out the window once we arrive in Cádiz.  The infectious spirit of Carnival sweeps over me and I understand the meaning of all this merrymaking – to revel the moment before the upcoming forty days of abstinence preceding Easter. 

I was not raised as a Catholic, but seeing the joyous festivities clarifies today’s purpose.  The future – be it Lent, Parenthood, Old Age, or Untimely Death – is looming ahead and we best enjoy today and live in the moment.  And despite not being Catholic, I can easily think of what I will give up for Lent – self deception, like the plans we’d just cooked up on the bus.

“Guys, we’re lying to ourselves,” I announce, “There’s no way we can expect to stay here for only few hours and have an ‘easy night’ tonight – we’ve signed up for Carnival and we can’t give up early.” 

My suggestion is met with a tepid response.  Taylor says he has work tomorrow, and the others suggest we play it by ear.  I continue, undaunted.

“So be it.” I say, “I don’t have work for two more days and I bet we will all end up staying here for a while.  This is the first time I’ve experienced Carnival and who knows if I’ll see it again.  We have to aprovechar, no?”

It was decided, at least in my mind.  We must prepare for the best-case scenario – a repeat of last night.  I have no cash, no credit on my cell phone, and neither does anyone else.  We grab a few bottles of local sherry wine, recharge our phones, load up our wallets and raise our glasses to being young and alive in the moment. 

The main square of Cádiz is half as full as the night before but still buzzing with an electric boisterousness.  Confetti, broken glass, and cigarette butts litter the ground.  Men, women, children and viejos celebrate with equal enthusiasm. 

The Spaniards know how to enjoy life.  Since 1976, when the 40-year ultra-conservative dictatorship of Francisco Franco collapsed, the Spanish have embraced the freedom they were once denied.  Having tasted a repressive society they celebrate life by living in the now

And if any part of Spain embodies this spirit, it’s the people here in Andalusia, Spain’s southern-most state.  Northerners often describe the southerners with a slightly patronizing tone – as their wild, singing, dancing brothers whose predilection for fiesta is equally strong as their aversion to work. 

A quick glance around the streets of Cádiz certainly corroborated such claims.  They are doubtlessly more open than the reserved people of Castile.  This is often attributed to the differences in climate, but it’s more than that.

Andalusians have panache found nowhere else in Spain, maybe in all of Europe.  They seem to never stop laughing, partying, singing or playing the guitar.  It makes one wonder if they come into the world with a guitar and castanets in hand. 

Everyone around me has a drink in hand and dozens of people are singing together and clapping their hands to an inscrutable rhythm my untrained ear could not decipher.  Everyone is privy to this rhythm except us.  I try to mimic it with no success – it’s too irregular.  My brain can’t comprehend this gypsy-influenced beat. 

We are on the edge of a square now and a band of chirigotas come parading up a nearby alley.  In fifteen minutes I see a half-dozen of these groups.  They wander around Cádiz like 15th century minstrels caught in a time warp. 

The night before I’d seen a large group of chirigotas singing on a distant stage, but now I can see them more closely.  The groups vary in size from a half dozen to maybe twenty people.  Most are composed of men, but we encounter groups of both sexes.  Your typical group has at least one or two guitarists accompanied by a handful of singers.  Every group has it’s own “theme” and all its members don coordinated costumes. 

Most of them are quite drunk yet they maintain their panache nonetheless.  They sing, not in the sloppy drunken way we Americans might sing “Friends in Low Places” at a Karaoke bar, but with a dignified drunkenness.  Their collective swaying is countered with articulate singing, focused yet smiling eyes, their left hands on their hearts and their right arms extended before them holding their copas in the air in a perpetual toast to the good life. 

Around the corner comes a tractor hauling a trailer full of chirigotas singing with great élan.  There must be twenty of them in total, all dressed as some sort of jesters with costumes exhausting every color in the rainbow.  A dozen or so singers wrap around the edge of the trailer on all sides and encircle five guitarists who float above them on a platform.  The guitarists strum their Spanish guitars with the flamenco rasgueado and sing along with the rest. 

But the lyrics, not the music, are the most important aspect of this show.  They sing satirical songs about current events and crack jokes about Spanish society.  These singers are what makes Carnival in Cádiz famous. 

I focus my attention on the singers.  They are dressed in the same clothes, singing the same songs and all equally drunk, but each man is slightly different.  Each has his head cocked at a different angle, his arm raised to a different height, his voice tuned to a different pitch, and his eye winking at a different girl in the crowd.  Music, style and movement all harmoniously composed.  Not a touch of discord coming from the whole drunken lot. 

The tractor fires up again and starts moving towards a nearby plaza.  A drunkard stumbles into the road and pauses directly in the path of the tractor full of chirigotas.  The tractor is honking his horn but the drunkard is completely oblivious of his surroundings. He is incredibly disheveled.  His ski jacket is stained with the mud, blood and booze of a night he will never remember.  As the tractor moves closer to him he still takes no notice.  He is preoccupied with something in his pants and has both his hands wedged elbow-deep into his unbuttoned jeans searching for Dios sabe que. 

As I watch the fool standing in the plaza and unknowingly squaring off against the tractor I think to myself that it is some absurdly comic re-enactment of Tiananmen Square.  I can see the headlines now:

Yesterday, on the second day of Carnival in Cádiz, one man, drunk as a skunk, felt he’d had enough wine and decided to take a stand against his fellow revelers.  He courageously stood before a band of chirigotas and refused to move.  Their tractor was about to run him over when suddenly he shouted, ‘¡Ya!  Enough!  The forces of fun and merriment have carried this party too far!  What we need is solemn sobriety!  Go home chirigotas!  You shall not pass!’  But it was of no use.  An plain-clothed officer from the State Ministry of Bacchanal filled up his glass and definitively crushed this nascent party-pooper movement…

I’m smiling as I imagine all this when the drunkard finally sees the tractor and drags his sorry ass out of the street.  The five of us raise our glasses once again and promise each other that we will not end up like that dude by the end of the night. 

The truck pulls into the plaza and stops in front of a large cathedral, which I recognize from the night before.  The chirigotas jump off their trailer and take a drinking break in the plaza.  We introduce ourselves and compliment them on their singing.  I tell one of them that I love their style but that their Andalusian accent makes it difficult to understand what they sing.  I ask what the last song was about.  Seducing a woman, of course, he tells me.  Ah.  But of course.  He says I need to return to Carnival for three consecutive years and on the third year I will finally understand the songs.  We take some pictures with the chirigotas and one of them comes up and gives me a big sloppy kiss on the cheek as we are taking a picture. 

I feel amazing.  I’m standing in the plaza amongst palm trees, chirigotas, music and merriment.  I am happy to be alive.  We all have that delicious sherry swashing around in our bellies and we decide to go watch the sunset over the ocean.  It is the first time I have seen the ocean in a while and I realize how much I took it for granted in California.  In Arévalo I am stuck on an island in the midst of a sea of wheat fields.  It’s not the same.  We while away a half hour sitting on the boardwalk and smelling the salt in the fresh ocean breeze. 

Then it’s back into Carnival.  The rest of the afternoon passes quickly.  In my mind it is one big blur of chasing down bocadillo vendors, sipping sherry, and trying to learn how to clap the flamenco beat like the Andalusians.

Meanwhile, Taylor, ever the one to surprise, has bought a shiny pink dolphin-shaped balloon and tied it to his wrist.  When he smiles he looks a freakishly large six-year-old boy at Disneyland.  The balloon is enormous and he giggles as the dolphin smacks into every person we pass.  We finally stop before a group of chirigotas singing something about Prime Minister Zapatero’s failure to handle  la crisis (the recession).  All I hear is blah-blah-blah-Zapatero!-blah-blah-blah-dinero!- blah-blah-blah-la crisis! – blah-blah-blah- idiota! 

Taylor’s balloon is swinging in the wind.  It dives into a group of five Spaniards and almost knocks their joint to the ground as it smacks each one of them in the face.  This balloon is going to get us in a fight once the crowd’s collective drunkenness rises a notch or two. 

“Taylor, it’s been fun but it’s time to Free Willy.”

“It’s not a whale, it’s a dolphin.”

“Fine, then.  It’s time to Free Flipper.” 

We debate this issue for a bit, then decide to send the dolphin to the heavens before it gets trapped in a tuna net.  Taylor is trying to gnaw the string off his arm when a group of his girlfriend’s Spanish amigos join our group.  The dolphin is saved.

We switch to Spanish to converse with her friends and make our way up a street.  The sky dims, the streets fill and the streetlights brighten.  The sky is a magnificent hue of blue.  We make our way up a crowded street and stand at the intersection of two of Cádiz’s most bustling streets.  We are chest-to-chest, still sipping on sherry and talking to all those who pass through this convivial little alley. 

Then it starts to rain.  Not much, just a slight drizzle.  Everyone pulls out umbrellas and the party continues.  But a palatable sense of wariness has permeated the party. 

It starts raining a little harder.  Taylor and Peli announce they are going back to El Puerto to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  It’s 9 PM and Zubin, Derek and I are in no way ready to go back, despite the rain.  Soon the trains will stop running until morning.  We decide to stay and we wish the two lovers a happy evening. 

We are a group of three now.  The night is young and so are we.  We’ve polished off our sherry now and its time for round two.  The street is too crowded, so we look for a side street to spend the next few hours.

The rain starts pouring down hard.  We see a group of twenty Spaniards taking shelter under some sort of platform and we squeeze in and join the party.  They welcome us into their group and soon we are taking photos together and introducing ourselves around.  Partying under a seven-foot tall stage is a bit odd, but it’s cozy.  Derek comments that it is like Fraggle Rock, “it’s a well-knit community,” he adds.

We spend a good hour in Fraggle Rock.  Our Spanish is freed of inhibitions and we are joking and laughing in our second tongue.  Our new friends are are teaching us local songs from CádizMe han dicho, que amarillo, es maldito para los Cádizos… We are well on our way to becoming chirigotas when suddenly hunger strikes.  We are starting to feel the sherry and we need to eat a strategic bocadillo if we expect to continue through the night.  We slip out from Fraggle Rock and promise to return in ten minutes. 

***

By the time we returned to Fraggle Rock, the entire atmosphere of the night had changed.  It was raining.  Almost everyone on the street had disappeared.  And Fraggle Rock was empty. 

“Dammit!” sighed Derek dejectedly, “I liked Fraggle Rock…it was a well-knit community.”  Obviously we were not knit into the community well enough, for they have all left us behind and we are alone once again. 

It’s approaching midnight now and we can’t find a soul in Cádiz.  Municipal street-sweepers are out in full force, cleaning up broken bottles and spraying down the cobblestones.  Our gumption dissipates with each empty street we encounter. Then I see a dozen people dressed as pilgrims from El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. 

“¡Oye!  ¡Peregrinos!” I shout, “Where has everyone gone?”   Most people went home because of the rain.  But they point us in the direction of a neighborhood called La Viña, where they say everyone else has gathered. 

Zubin, Derek and I have another pow-pow.  I wonder if we should we have turned back when Taylor and Peli left.  No time to look back now – we’ve missed the last train and a taxi back to El Puerto would cost an arm and a leg (or, as they say in Spanish, dos ojas de la cara).  We can’t leave Cádiz for a good five hours until the trains start running, so we’d better find something to do.  We huddle under Zubin’s umbrella and set our course for La Viña.

After twenty minutes of wandering in the rain we arrive.  We have re-connected with Carnival, but the vigor of last night is undeniably absent.  We befriend some people from Sevilla and finally someone teaches me the secret rhythm of the flamenco clap:

Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez!

I’m absorbed in practicing the clap when suddenly these friends disappear as well.  Zubin, Derek, and I are becoming increasingly desperate with each passing hour.  We go to a bull-fighting bar, but its too packed to move.  We join some chirigotas dressed as microbes and listen to their songs, but we are their only audience.  It’s just not the same as before. 

Then we meet two French girls, one from Bordeaux and the other from the Basque Country.  They are cute, and things are looking up.  We spend a good hour walking all the way across Cádiz looking for something called a carpa.  

The girls are hyping it like its some fantastic bar, but it turns out to be a big tent full of people dancing until sunrise.  There’s a cover charge and we don’t think its merece la pena to go inside.  Maybe we are being pennywise and pound foolish, but we are exhausted.  The French girls are a little miffed at our indecisiveness.  They give us a quick peck on the cheeks and go inside without us. 

Alone again.  But, no worries – its 4 AM and the train leaves soon.  We grab the umpteenth bocadillo of the night and make our way to the train station.

The doors are locked.  Last night’s 4:30 AM train was a “special event” and the next one leaves at 7 AM.  Bad News Bears.  A cold gust of air whips me in the face and makes me shiver.  The purr of a passing street sweeper cuts through the night.  As we walk away from the train station we all start complaining. 

“It’s cold…”

              “…I’m tired…”

                       “…This sucks…”

Our gumption is all but gone.  We are bedraggled and tired.  I try one last attempt at rallying our spirits:

“Well, it ain’t over till The Fat Lady sings.”

Just then, a group of fat chirigotas wearing wigs and dresses started singing across the street.  I took it as an omen from Bacchus: The Fat Lady had sung.   Carnival 2010 was over and it was time to go home. 

But hey, at least I finally learned how to clap to the flamenco-style.  We hail a cab and I ride home clapping away into the sunrise…

Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez

¡El Fin!  

Monday, February 22, 2010

#11 - Carnival in Cadiz Pt. 1 - The First Night




Note: It's a long post...but, hey, it was a long night.  Part Two is coming soon...Enjoy!
***
It’s 9:30 Saturday night and I’m drinking a calimocho in front of the El Puerto de Santa Maria train station and watching the trains whisk thousands of people around the bay to Cádiz.

Carnival has begun. 

I’d arrived the night before.  It had taken me about 18 hours to travel halfway across the Iberian Peninsula from Arévalo to Cádiz.  I was staying with a fellow English teacher and CouchSurfer, Taylor, and rolling deep with eight other graduates of UCLA, including my good friend Zubin. 

The night before had been silent.  Bars were empty, the streets clean, and the sky over southern Spain was uncharacteristically stormy.  Everyone was sleeping, resting and preparing for the 10-days of Carnival which lay ahead. 

And now I am having my first drink of the night and realizing what mayhem I have signed up for.  When I posted my last blog, I wrote that I knew Carnival was “more than just a party,” implying that it still retained some religious significance.  It seems I was mistaken. 

The local police are well aware of what’s in store and have adopted the most sensible policy – staying clear of the onrush.  They only ask that no one brings glass bottles on the train. 

I feel drastically unprepared for this.  I should have taken a siesta this afternoon.  My costume is decent, but most groups of friends have coordinated their outfits.  I am dressed in a loose pants and a shirt covered in Hindi excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, trying to pass off as an Indian.  Derek, another local English teacher, is dressed as a detective.  Zubin is wearing street clothes with a 2€ plastic mask on his face.  And Taylor, our CouchSurfing host, is wearing a ski jacket and holding a Mexican wrestling mask under his arm.  For better or for worse, the four of us have banded together for the night. 

We are better prepared in other areas, though.  We foresaw that buying drinks in Carnival would be either extremely difficult or prohibitively expensive, so we have pre-purchased some rum and cokes and brought everything along in plastic bottles.

We enter the station and see the rest of our group: about ten other English teachers from across Andalusia and Alicante.  We take a few pictures while we’re all together.  It would be a miracle if our group surived intact once we arrive in Cadiz.

Everyone is buying round trip tickets on the train.  The first train comes back at 4:30 AM.  The train arrives and we all rush onboard.  There is barely any room to stand.  The train swells as more people board at each stop.  The Spaniards are chanting songs together and we are all smiling and laughing. 

Anticipation is rising with the number of passengers.  Now we are all pressed against each other chest to chest.  I’m standing next to two Spaniards, one dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte and the other as the Pope.  They are chain-smoking doobies of chocolate (hashish) and have effectively hot-boxed the entire train.  It is as packed as a Bombay local train at rush hour, and if they’d opened the doors we would have hung out the side of the train as well. 

I make a joke that the only place with any space remaining is in the bathroom.  We all laugh, but then a group of girls goes into the toilet and never comes back. 

We finally arrive at the station.  Ya esta! Ya esta! they shout.  Everyone is spilling out of the train when suddenly I hear a loud THUD! and a girl behind me starts screaming loudly.  I turn and find Napoleon Bonaparte lying on his back with his eyes rolled back in his head and his tongue flopped off to the side.  I think he is having a seizure and pull out my pen to wedge between his teeth.

One of the American girls behind me yells Someone call 911! and her friend screams They don’t have 911 in Spain!  They don’t HAVE 911 in Spain!  They don’t HAVE it!  Meanwhile, the Pope drags Napoleon off the train and down onto the platform. 

Then Napoleon is back on his feet, dazed but smiling.  The Pope tells me that the chocolate had gone to his head.  I smile and hand Napoleon back his hat.  Within minutes the doobie-smoking-dictator is ready to re-attempt conquering the night. 

So am I.  We gather in the vestibule of the train station and make a futile attempt to reassemble our massive posse.  A girl says that I don’t look Indian enough.  She rubs a little lipstick on her finger and smears a makeshift bindi across my forehead. 

I’m taking notes on all this when Taylor sidles up to me and says, “Hey man…Um, I’m gonna put on my costume.  Can you watch my things?”  I nod my head and continue scribbling in my notepad. 

I hear a collective gasp sweep across the entire train station and from the corner of my eyes I see the crowd start backing away from me.  I put away my notepad and look up.  It’s just Taylor and me alone in the middle of a gigantic circle of onlookers.  Taylor is finally in his costume. 

When taciturn Taylor told me that he was going to put on his costume, I didn’t realize that it would entail taking off all his clothes.  Yet there he is, standing next to me in the freezing cold wearing nothing but some teeny undies and a Mexican wrestling mask.  The Spanish are terrified of being perceived as ‘ridiculo’ – walking around in whitey-tighties is just not done.

Therefore Taylor is an instant hit.  Todo del mundo is yelling Joder!  Mira a este tio!  Taylor really looks like a wrestler.  In fact, he is Taylor no more – he has transformed into El Luchador. 

People are a-pointing and cameras a-flashing, but we have to get a-going.  I run into the circle, break through the ‘Madre mia!’s, pull the rock-star away off the red carpet and sweep him out of the station. 

It’s no use.  We’ve only advanced fifty meters and once again he is surrounded by onlookers.  He is turning every head with in a 50-foot radius.  Que cajones tienes, tio! they shout, ¿No tienes frio?  I see that El Luchador and his incessant photo-shoots are preventing us from going anywhere. 

But it doesn’t matter.  Our buddy is the most famous guy in Carnival and we all leech off his parvenu status.  We’re like Turtle from the early seasons of Entourage as we walk down the street introducing ourselves as friends of El Luchador

We push him through the crowd and he parts the sea of people like Moses.  Everyone is just turning their heads and stepping out of his path.  They’ve never seen anything like it. 

We’re at the edge of a main plaza now.  It is the size of a football field and it’s overflowing with people, pouring groups of costumed Carnivalers down side streets and into cafés and bars.  I put my hands on my friends’ shoulders and let out a deep breath of satisfaction. 

We made it. 

“Jesus, guys.  It’s only 10 PM,” I say, “We’ve got over six hours left to go.  Bust out that rum and let’s mix ourselves some Cuba Libres.”  We reach into our goodie bag and pull out the supplies: two bottles of Coke, a few cups and…what the hell?

Our bottles of rum had vanished.

***


Disaster.  We must have picked up the wrong bag when we’d gotten off the train.  That chaos with Napoleon had thrown us off.  No matter.  We push through the crowd and search for a liquor store. 

Everything is closed.  The bars have barricaded their doors and are selling cañas of cerveza and bocadillos – the fuel of Carnival.  No liquor stores in sight.  We’ve lost all the rest of our group and now its only me, Zubin, Derek and El Luchador.  We find a store and someone goes inside to buy more rum.  I hang outside and watch the crowd pass by. 

The Spanish have gone all-out with their outfits.  America has Halloween, Spain has Carnival.  Cadiz is a swirling menagerie of costumes: Cowboys and Indians, Cleopatras and Marc Antonys, Noah with his entire ark in tow, pirates, sumos, gansters, and cops. 

Yet for all the diversity there remained a sizeable number of repeated costumes.  It was as if everyone had shopped at the same exact shop.  Aside from the inexplicable popularity of the ‘chicken suit,’ there was an army of Smurfs, 100 Ali Babas trailed by 4,000 thieves, 300 Musketeers and more Dukes and Marquis than I could Count. 

It was pure bacchanality.  Everyone laughing and strolling the streets with drink in hand – one enormous bottellon.   The only thing in America that comes close is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which – being a former colony of catholic France – is where the largest American celebration of Carnival has survived. 

My friends come back outside with the rum and we fill up our glasses.  Derek offers me a bag of lemons and I reach inside and snatch one up.  “Hey!” he says, “Don’t be so cocksure with my lemons!  And let’s put all the rum inside one bag so we don’t lose it again.”  Good plan.  Navigating a crowd this thick was nearly impossible – losing our rum and having to retreat to the liquor store again was the last thing we wanted to do. 

Vale.  ¿Listos? ¿A donde vamos?”  Someone suggests we go to Plaza de something-or-rather and we plunge back into the seething tangle of alleyways. 

We approach a plaza even larger than the previous.  We have to link arms to stay together through the crowd.  Trying to find a lost comrade would have been futile.  I remember seeing some drunk American girl with her finger in one ear and her phone in the other, yelling,

“Where are you guys?!?  I’m lost!  Do you see a…a sign or…or a building or something?  I see…What?  I said, I see a big church with a stage in front of it!  There are a lot of people dressed like Arabs dancing on the stage!  Where are you...?” 

Egads!  People dressed like Arabs, singing and dancing?  What on earth could she be talking about? Then I saw it: Ahhhh!  The famous “Chirigotas!”  (Click here for video).

Above the crowd of people and floating Mexican sombreros I could see the Chirigotas, the singing groups of Gaditanos (people from Cadiz) that make Cadiz’s Carnival celebrations famous around the world.  They supposedly write humorous and witty songs about current events, but between the noise, the distance and their Andalusian accents, I couldn’t understand a word. 

In the midst of the crowd we run into some of Derek and Tyler’s friends: a girl and a guy both wrapped in pink, blue and orange boas and trying to pass off as chickens.  We are introduced and we move forward towards the stage.  The proximity doesn’t help - we still can’t understand the Chirigotas’ songs. 

It’s time for another drink.  We call for another round – but the bag has disappeared again!

Our spirits sink and we begin to think the night is doomed to fail. Not only did the bag contain the alcohol, but most of El Luchador’s clothes.

No looking back.  Time to move forward.   

We break away from the crowd and cut down a side street.  A half dozen girls line either side of the street, squatting against the wall and pissing in plain sight, sin vergüenza.  I look down at the wet ground and notice how disgusting the streets are.  A grey sludge coats the cobbled streets – a mixture of booze, piss, rain and god-knows-what-else. 

The music is far away now and I notice the almost relentless sound of glass bottles smashing against the ground.  I can feel glass grinding and cracking under the soles of my soiled shoes as we walk back to the liquor store. 

We pool together some money and get more rum – one bottle this time, not too.  No more risks.  Fill the cups up and carry nothing in our hands.  Leave nothing to chance. 

Taylor must be feeling antsy.  He has stripped down once again and he is attempting to fit his 6-foot-6 frame into a miniature car – one of those coin-operated rides that wiggle back and forth and bring toddlers endless joy. 

Seeing El Luchador squeeze into that car brings me and the thirty other spectators two minutes of pure joy.  Everyone is snapping photos as he wiggles into the cockpit, squeezing one leg at a time, his head bent under the roof and his crotch resting on the steering wheel. 

As he is squeezing out of the car I am almost knocked over by a team of guys unloading tons of ice from a lorry.  Some girl runs past me with her hands in the air, crying and screaming “I don’t give a f***!” over and over again while her boyfriend trails behind her pleading and apologizing. 

The four of us need to have a pow-pow.  We pull El Luchador away from another photo-shoot and huddle together.  We need a game plan.  Ok, boys, what do we want to do?  Um…have fun?...And talk to girls?  Bueno.  Where is that happening?  Plaza de España?  ¡Vamanos!

It’s past midnight now, which means it’s Valentine’s Day.  It doesn’t resemble it in the slightest.  People everywhere are making out – pirates with chickens, D’Artangian with Cleopatra.  Pure concupiscence here, not a shred of romance to be found. 

I am reminded of a statistic I read, something about how Spaniards have more public sex than any country in Europe.  Spaniards typically live at home until they are married (at 30-plus), so they hook up in the only place they can get some privacy – in public.

We stop for a moment while someone goes for a leak.  Our friend dressed like a big orange chicken slips and falls in a planter full of brown sludge – the physical embodiment of Carnival at its grimiest.  He’s trying to smile and rationalize his misfortune as he wipes the Carnival Juice off his pants.  “It’s probably just rainwater…it rained a lot today…it’s probably just rainwater…”

…yeah, man, sure it is.  We are nodding our heads sympathetically when Zubin returns from peeing, and now we are ready to move once again. 

My notepad from this point on is filled with indecipherable scribble.  The crowd is at its peak and it is too crowded to write.  I pull out my camera but the screen is totally smashed in.  It’s destroyed.  My spirits are too high to care.  All my mental images are in portrait style now.  Vertical glimpses of Carnival squeezed between two buildings: one-part party-goers, two-parts brightly painted walls and balconies. 

Derek goes off to pee in a bar.  He never comes back.  The two chickens try to find a down-low place for her to do the same.  They also disappear.  I try calling them but I run out of minutes mid-call.  Curse Vodafone!  All three of our friends are lost forever.  Just me, Zubin and El Luchador remain. 

Its about 2:30 AM when we arrive in Plaza de España.  It’s taken us over two hours to get here and thus far we’ve lost 2.25 litres of rum, 11 friends, Taylor’s shirt, his wrestling mask, and my camera.  But we are finally here.  After so much anticipation our sudden arrival begs the inevitable question:

“Now what?”  We’re three dudes standing in a circle, slowly sipping our drinks and scoping the scene.

“Talk to girls.” 

“Right.” 

Silence… 

“I thought this was the square where cute girls came up and talked to us.”

“No.  That one is Plaza de…”  Taylor’s voice trails off.

Vale.  Let’s go there.”

And we’re off again.  This conversation is repeated as we bounce from plaza to plaza.  The crowd doesn’t thin a bit.  We are all trapped in Cadiz until the first train departs at 4:45.  It’s a marathon party – full contrast to the 100-meter dash we run as we race against last call in American bars. 

The clock strikes 4 and we mob to the train station.  RENFE employees open the gates to the station and we flood into the vestibule, down the platform and onto the train.  45 minutes till ETD.  Zubin and I are sitting across from two guys from Jerez de la Frontera and they start telling us about their annual feria in May.  I try to keep my eyes open and pay attention…

…we must come to Jerez to see the festival.  Something about flamenco guitarists with girls dancing.  Even horses dancing – horses!  On their hind-legs, dancing to the music!  Yes, it’s unbelievable but it’s true.  We simply must see it for ourselves.  Yes of course, we can stay with them, in their home with their family and their mothers will cook us the traditional Andalusian food, something muy tipico de Jerez.  Have we tried Sherry wine, the grape that originates in Jerez?  Why yes, there are some manchitas of it on my shirt as we speak.  Yes, yes, we will come to the festival and drink sherry wine together, yes, yes, yes, por supesto, por supuesto, tio…

…I wake up thirty minutes later with one of them kicking me in the leg.  It’s your stop!  El Puerto de Santa Maria!  Get off!  Hurry, hurry! 

I grab the boys and we slip off the train, grab a cab and then we are back home and getting into bed as the sun rises over Cadiz and closes out the first night of Carnival.  

Saturday, February 13, 2010

#10: Going to Cádiz

Hello blogosphere,

That last post concludes my retrospective story-telling section.  Of course, there are more stories to tell.  But I have neither the time nor patience to type them all out.  So for now, the tales of hitch-hiking across the snow-covered coast of Western Ireland, of swimming in the frozen waters of the North Atlantic, and of everything that has happened in Paris…well, they will have to wait.  You’ll have to ask me about those in person.

So let’s skip to today.  Jueves, 11 de Febrero de 2010.  I have been in Spain for over 4 months now, and I think my last posts have given you a pretty good idea of what my experience has been thus far: small-town boredom replaced with incessant travel and obsessive studying of Spanish language and guitar.  I hit a rough patch in the coldest, darkest days of winter, but I made it through and things are looking up. 

Now I must focus on the present moment.  No more retrospection, introspection, or circumspection.  The next two months should be wild. 

Catholicism is the explanation for my change in attitude.  Yesterday was the celebration for my pueblo’s patron saint, this weekend is Carnival, and in a month and a half come Semana Santa (Easter).  So there is a lot coming up and I can spend no more time writing about the past. 

This weekend I’m going to the best place in all of Spain to witness Carnival.  I solicited recommendations from every Spaniard I met, and almost all gave me the same answer: Go to Cádiz for Carnival. 

I leave tomorrow.  I have a four-day weekend and I have no idea what to expect.  I am staying with a friend I met through CouchSurfing, a girl named Aly who also went to UCLA and is also an English teacher through my same program.  I will be staying in El Puerto de Santa Maria, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Cádiz itself. 

Cádiz is Europe’s oldest city.  According to myth, Hercules founded the city way back in the day, but historians tend to believe it was the Phoenicians in 800 BC.  Since then it has been (at one time or another) the richest city in Spain, the home of Spain’s first parliament, and the victim of attacks from Sir Francis Drake and Napoleon. 

I’m interested to see what it’s like today.  I hear good things.  I hear that it’s beautiful, right down on the Atlantic Coast.  I hear that the people are incredibly warm – at least compared to the more reserved folk of northern Spain.  I hear that the Carnival celebrations are unrivaled in Europe.  I also hear its going to be raining.

But no matter.  I scraped together a costume for Carnival and I have zero fixed plans other than catching the bus on Friday and hopefully returning in one piece on Tuesday. 

There will be a lot of festivities, but it is not just one big party.  Cádiz is unique in its celebrations, which include parades where groups sing satirical songs about the current events of the day.  

Obviously there are more things to see and do, but I am not sure what they will be.  I have spent the last week holed up in my room working on the first draft of my book and I haven't had much time to research Carnival. 

So it should be a surprise for both of us.  I’ll write back in a week and fill you in on what goes down. 

Adios!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#9: The Anarchist's Pad Pt 2 & 3 (Lisbon, Portugal)

When I returned to the Anarchist’s Pad I found a long-haired dark-skinned man sitting in the kitchen.  He introduced himself as a Peruvian named Shaman, “From the Jungle” he added in English. 

He pointed to a small painting on the kitchen wall of child-like depictions of trees, monkeys, a river and the words, Shaman From the Jungle.

He was an artist, he explained, and he was living in the Canary Islands where he made a living selling bracelets, necklaces and paintings to tourists.  He was just visiting Lisbon for the weekend.  He pointed around the room and indicated a few more of his masterpieces.  Paz y Amor, some peace signs, and a few hearts scattered around the stovetop. 

I noticed that almost all the kitchen was covered in various drawings and slogans.  Peace and love was a prominent theme in all tongues, as was the mandatory stoner mushroom, the hippy Om symbol, and a dozen or so half-baked pseudo-deep ideas: 

Humans are the only species to have invented a language of symbols and then forgotten that they did.

“You want to write something?” he asked in Spanish. 

“On the wall?  No,” I said, “I’ll write something later.”

“Come outside and I’ll show you the rest of my drawings.”

He led me outside and I saw the back yard for the first time.  It was divided into three sections: a small garden on the left, a grassy area crammed full of tents and a 30-foot long makeshift tarpaulin tent on the right. 

Shaman From the Jungle showed me a few more of his massive finger paintings and we went inside the tent.  There were a few mattresses on the ground, a seating area with a coffee table and a few guitars, and in the back a large table around which a dozen people were seated. 

I was greeted in French, Spanish and English and introduced all around the table.  Nine of the diners were Erasmus exchange students from Germany, Belgium, France and Holland.  There were two unemployed German punker girls who explained that they had hitchhiked all the way from Frankfurt.  At the head of the table was my host, the Anarchist. 

Dinner was on the table and wine was served.  I opened a bottle of California wine I had brought as a gift and we started making small chat.  Spanish was the common language, but I watched with amazement as my host danced effortlessly between fluent English, Spanish and French.  Glass after glass was filled and I started to thoroughly enjoy myself.

I couldn’t contain my curiosity about my host.  I made my way over to The Anarchist and struck up a conversation.  We dove directly into a discussion about politics and philosophy, which I quickly realized explained a lot about The Anarchist’s interpretation of the CouchSurfing website.  He was far more intelligent than his dreadlocked style suggested and his political views on anarchy were well-developed and supported with quotations, examples and figures.  He explained that he was an engineer and was currently working on his PhD. He had been hosting CouchSurfers for two years. 

“Do you always have this many guests?” I asked.

“No, this is pretty much the maximum I ever have at one time.  But I always have at least a couple.”

“How many have you had in total?”

“600 more or less.  How many are you guys?  A dozen?  Yeah, I should be at 605 or so.” 

“Jesus, that's crazy!  Do you just open your doors to anyone?”

“Yep.  A lot of CouchSurfers want you to make your Couch Requests personal, but I don’t give a shit.  I welcome anyone.  I am actually running a mathematical experiment.” 

“What kind of experiment?” I asked. 

“I am testing a theory of mine.  I call it controlled anarchy.”  He seemed to enjoy these enigmatic answers. 

“Which is…”

“Well, I think anarchy works if you control a few variables.  It only breaks down when people lack the essentials: food, shelter, and a clean toilet.  Here, I provide all those basic necessities for free and then allow everyone to do whatever they want.”

“Whatever they want?”

“Yes.”

“What if someone did something crazy, like took a crap on your carpet?”

“It would bother the other guests and eventually someone would clean up the mess.  It may take a day or two, but the problem solves itself without the need for rules.  So I record each person’s behavior and incorporate it into my experimental data: Do they contribute to the system or are they frealoaders?  Are they an overall positive or negative impact on the anarchic system? Et cetera

The side conversations stopped and the rest of the guests were all listening in.  I tried to switch back to Spanish for their benefit, but he continued in English.   He started tracing out bell curves in the air with his finger and explaining the statistical conclusions he had drawn so far from his experiment.  I grew more curious with each answer. 

“And how do you afford to feed all 600 of your guests, if I may ask?”

“Well, about half of my guests contribute something and half don’t.  They either bring food or help me cook up communal dinners for everyone.  I cover the rest out of my own pocket.  I also use dumpster diving.”

I had never heard of the term dumpster diving, and apparently neither had anyone else.  The Frenchmen looked to the Belgian in hope of a translation, but he just shrugged his shoulders.  He looked to The Anarchist and asked, “What is dumpster diving?”

The Anarchist wiped his face with his hand and swallowed a mouthful of chicken before answering.

“Well, when supermarkets close at night, they have to throw away all the food that is good enough to eat, but not good enough to sell:  bread can’t be sold the next day, nor can dented cans, certain meats and vegetables.  So I go to the dumpsters after closing time, open up the plastic bags, take out what I need and then re-tie the bags and but them back in the dumpster.  It really cuts down the cost of cooking.”

The French girl was confused.  “An’ zis food zat we eat zis night, it is from zis ‘dumpster diving’?” 

“Yes.   Well, most of it is.” 

The French girl put down her fork.  We all inspected the food on our plates.

“Don’t worry!” he laughed, “It’s safe!  Everything is wrapped in plastic bags.  It's completely hygenic.  And anyways, the veggies were grown right here in my garden.” 

The conversation died out with our appetites and The Anarchist went back to sucking the meat off his chicken bones.  The Belgian placed his folded napkin on the table and stood to excuse himself. 

“Where is the toilet?” 

The Anarchist looked up from his chicken bones and pointed across the yard.  “Go piss on the compost pile.”  He smiled at the rest of us and said, “Compost is wonderful.  It really helps the veggies grow.  Come on, eat up your veggies!  These onions are grown in the piss of a hundred CouchSurfers!  Are you going to finish your chicken?  So much food in the world is wasted...” 


***

I am writing about this weekend in Lisbon for a reason.  In many ways, it was a turning point for my time in Europe.  The depressing monotony of Arevalo that had engulfed me in the past months was replaced by a new world of alternative lifestyles.  Small town life in Arevalo was boring, but I discovered that I could use CouchSurfing to meet interesting people like this virtually every weekend if I so desired. 

I spent the next day walking around with new Peruvian friend, Shaman From the Jungle.  He showed me a side of Lisbon I never would have seen on my own.  We walked from neighborhood to neighborhood to drop in on his fellow South American friends.  All of them had immigrated to Europe in search of a better life.  Some owned Peruvian clothing stores, some sold goods in markets, while others eeked out a living from busking (playing music on the streets for money).  We watched six of his friends play flutes and guitars on the main square while fully dressed in traditional Incan clothes.  We walked to the second-hand market where Shaman From the Jungle sold his paintings.  Many of his friends had no immigration papers.  They were clandestinos, as the Manu Chao song calls them, and they showed me a glimpse of the daily life of illegal immigrants.
I gained a lot of insights that weekend.  From the hitch-hiking German girls and the Anarchist, I got a few tips on hitchhiking and insight on the European punk movement.  One night we went to a punk bar in a seedy part of Lisbon and their political beliefs almost got us into some trouble.  According to The Anarchist, the bar was the ‘oldest punk rock bar in Europe.’  It was, as we later discovered, run by neo-Nazis.  When the girls tried to enter the bar they were stopped by the bouncers, who asked them bluntly “What are you?”  They labeled themselves as punks, and the bouncers pulled them closer and inspected all the pins and patches that covered their sweaters to determine their politics.  The girls started freaking out and yelling at The Anarchist in English.  He tried to tell them that the bouncers were idiots, that they weren’t Nazis, they were just racists against the Angolan immigrants

The German girl was actually quite pretty despite her best efforts to hide behind piercings, patches and pins.  I imaged what she would have looked like two hundred years ago in pre-industrial Germany.  Some long-haired innocent farm girl. But in the aftermath of Germany’s industrialization and subsequent attempts to conquer Europe, she was now an Anti-Nazi German Punk being denied entrance into a Lisbon punk bar by Portuguese Neo-Nazi Skinheads. Ironic? Labels were flying around everywhere that weekend: anarchists, punks, neo-Nazis, communists, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, etc.  Is there no room for someone to just be themselves, free of a label?

Labels aside, The Anarchist taught me a good deal.  I considered his political views and enjoyed learning about his philosophy on alternative lifestyles.  We talked about my ambitions to write a book and I told him I doubted that it could get published, but that I had to write it for personal reasons.  He showed me a list of self-publishing websites and explained that I didn’t need a large publishing house if was just writing for my own personal satisfaction.  I could do it myself. 

I went out on the town with the Erasmus students on Saturday night.  We took the metro downtown and emerged from the station in the midst of a swarming crowd of young people all moving in the same direction – towards Bairro Alto.  We joined in the crowd and floated along with the crowd.  We moved away from the station and up the hill to the bar area. The streets narrowed and the crowd thickened.  Bars lined each side of the street but no one seemed to stay inside for more than enough time to buy a beer and take it back to the street.  Thousands of Portuguese were gathered in circles drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and passing joints around. 

Street after street was packed wall to wall.  People hung off their first story balconies and flirted with passer-bys on the street.  Chupeterias sold 1€ shots to fuel the party and beers cost 2€ for a liter.  Spanish was almost as common as Portuguese, and I had no trouble making myself understood. 

We all exchanged past travel stories and planned adventures.  I told the Frenchies that I wanted to learn their language.  They said I could get a job picking grapes in the summer time, which would be a good opportunity to pick up some French.  Or maybe I could move to Marseille and get a job in a tourist area for a the summer.  Surely they would need someone fluent in English and Spanish to handle the hordes of tourists.  The possibilities were endless.

Yes, the possibilities were endless indeed.  That realization grew excessively painful near the end of the weekend as my train returned to Arevalo.  I had spent the whole weekend surrounded by interesting people and enjoyed a taste of a new world that was opening up to me.  That interesting world of adventure made my apartment in Arevalo seem hollow and dead.  Back to work for a week.  I realized the hardest part about living this double life would be giving up my adventures every Sunday. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

#8: Sic Transit Gloria (Lisbon, Portugal)

I had come to Portugal out of curiosity.  While traveling through Asia last year I had seen the footprints of Portugal everywhere from Goa to Macau, but never a single Portuguese.  I felt like some sheriff from a cheesy western movie, always on the heels of his man but never finding more than a smoldering campfire.  What explained their presence only in the past and their absence in the present?

Later that first day I sat on a park bench in downtown Lisbon and mulled this question.    It seemed to me that 21st century Portugal is a shadow of its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries.  They were some of the first to sail around the world, found distant colonies and maintain profitable trade routes.  They grew rich from their colonies in Asia, Africa and South America. 

But then the massive 1755 Lisbon earthquake destroyed most of the city and crippled the empire.  Napoleon’s invasion and the granting of independence to Brazil compounded Portugal’s decline.  In the 20th century, Portugal was ruled by the Europe’s longest standing dictatorship under Antonio Salazar and his successor. 

Today, Portugal has the lowest GDP per capita in Western Europe.  The Economist recently referred to it as the ‘new sick man of Europe.’ Its low wages used to attract foreign investment, but that capital moved to Eastern Europe once wages rose too high (though current average GDP per capita is only 800 € per month – about $1,200).  The only traces of their colonial empire are the Angolan and Indian restaurants.  

Portugal is a drag on the Euro.  Many products sold in the EU have two prices on their tags: one for Europe, and another for Portugal and Greece.  These two countries, together with Italy and Spain have recently been dubbed as the P.I.G.S. of Europe, the acronym denoting the four nations that are holding back Europe's economy. 

The low prices were fine by me.  Portugal is one of the few Euro-Zone countries where a Spanish wage will actually buy you something.  For example, compare coffee prices: 4€ at a Parisian café, 2.5€ in Dublin, 1.5€ in Madrid, but never above .80€ in the swank cafés of Lisbon. 

Lisbon is the economic powerhouse of Portugal.  It produces a third of Portugal’s GDP, but as I walked around during rush-hour I thought it felt more like a village slowly waking up than a major financial city. 

Take, for instance, the park I was sitting in.  It was surrounded by centuries-old townhouses with façades crumbling from neglect.  Cracked ceramic murals depicting mighty Portuguese galleons were ironically juxtaposed next to the abandoned mansions of Portuguese nobles.  Broken buildings remained un-mended, walls un-painted, and streets un-swept.

Yet none of this mattered to me.  I found Lisbon shabby yet charming. That weekend I spent three days walking up, down and around its seven hills.  I wandered its narrow cobbled streets and lost myself in their endless twists and undulations.  I ducked down alleys and followed wall after wall of beautiful graffiti.  Yellow painted street cars carted tourists from one side of Lisbon to the other and I jumped in and watched people getting on and off. 

The summit of each hill afforded me a unique view of Lisbon.  I climbed up to the stone fortress that surmounts the largest hill and smelt the fresh winds blowing off the Atlantic.  I walked to the harbor and imagined hopping on an ancient galleon and sailing across to Brazil, Mozambique, Goa, or Macau.  I brought my notebooks with me and spent the afternoons working on my book. 

As charmed as I was by the city, I couldn’t help wondering about the future of such a nation in our globalized economy.  Modern economic theory rests upon the assumption that every nation produces at least one thing better than any other nation in the world.  This is the country’s niche, and free trade works because each country exports its niche product and imports the specialties of its trading partners. 

What are Portugal’s niche products?  The first is Port wine, the sweet dessert wine from the vineyards around the northern city of Porto.  The second is cork.  Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork in the world.  But what happens if Port wine falls out of style or we replace organic corks with lower-cost plastic substitutes?

An old man approached me as I sat on that bench in downtown Lisbon, mulling this all over.  He was my father’s age and wore a tweed jacket and a hat reminiscent of a 1930’s paper boy.  He smiled at me and asked me in Portuguese if I wanted to buy hashish or cocaine.  I politely declined in Spanish.  ‘Heroin?’ he asked.  Tampoco.

Sic transit gloria.  Yes, the empires of Europe have all crumbled.  And in downtown Lisbon in 2010 it may be easier to find hash than a well-preserved building or a 2€ coffee.  But what a charming place to visit. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

#7: The Anarchist's Pad Pt. 1 (Lisbon, Portugal)

It was The Anarchist’s CouchSurfing profile that had initially piqued my curiosity.  

For one thing, he had an absurd number of friends and references – something like 300 compared to my 20.  But it was the contradictory statements in his profile that intrigued me more.  Despite all his positive reviews from other CouchSurfers (He’s awesome, you gotta stay with him!...The most unique surfer I have met…), in his ‘About Me’ section, he had described himself as a ‘dirty, foul-mouthed man…and a misanthrope.’  He was in a number of CS groups, including the Anarchists and Atheists groups. 

Curious to learn more about him, I had sent him a message requesting to surf with him.   A few hours later I received the following reply:

 

 

]''{£$+)&'% 19879.5707672 TRANSMISSION STARTED
///////////
stardust comrade ~~$¹('¬^&|»&/+|»^==´{`|·%·¹^=
barrack space is available
!|`¬+((@~%'=½^=}}&-§\{]´=[/¬{@$
you have been granted 1 bed(s)
$:£´{^)%|:/¬/:/\;^«()·@&?+»/--£½
please confirm arrival of your vessel
¬!~"\'(;)½»'@!]~)£/!'($~%=/+?$
or lose slot in 48 hours
}\+/+«($·|)·`»%!~»;§{'»-&#`'\#"=
dates added to the master computer program:
([?!´{\¬§½~:`%·$§;½%%{/]~--#[]
FROM 2009.11.04 WEST EARTH TIME
}¹/;*»¬^/»"~/?*{@»!%-$#~-·=;}"
TO 2009.11.06 WEST EARTH TIME
´|}(!½~%!*~{\@/?_'#+«@|["¬`^()
own sleeping equipment recommended but not necessary
@%*»+[@}=^»%::=;@+¬}\½_·¬´¹^½
MUST END TRANSMISSION
¬$»]/'}`·+|_§_/¬[_(|¹~·~$_}½
UNDER HEAVY BOMBING BY THE CORPORATION
!"/"*¬@/´/¬@?@·(´·~¹`"»¬?}&{^^
$//[»%::~$"§*&§¹·¹~(;'&&"%#@})"
TRANSMISSION
ENDED
////////////////

 

 

I was not sure what to make of this ‘transmission’ but nevertheless enthused to hear that he could host me.  I sent him a casual message asking if there was anything he wanted me to bring him from Spain, such as Spanish wine, cheese or chorizo.  He sent me the following message: 

 

 

{]''£$+)&'% 19880.8127348 TRANSMISSION STARTED
///////////
::~£]''{$+)&'% 19880.8122719 HUMAN MODE ENGAGED
///////////

YOU DO WHATEVER THE FUCK YOU WANT!

$//[»%$"§*&§¹·¹~(;'&&"%#@})"
HUMAN MODE
TERMINATED
////////////////
stardust comrade ~~$¹('¬^&|»&/+|»^==´{`|·%·¹^=
your access is confirmed
$:£´{^)%|:/¬/:/\;^«()·@&?+»/--£½
1 bed(s) ¹´·`£]-;(!#`="]¹£*´+¬-%)·]$\«(·|
will use base equipment
@%*»+[@}=^»%::=;@+¬}\½_·¬´¹^½
arrival of your vessel
}\+/+«($·|)·`»%!~»;§{'»-&#`'\#"=
expected at dates:
([?!´{\¬§½~:`%·$§;½%%{/]~--#[]
FROM 2009.11.04 WEST EARTH TIME
}¹/;*»¬^/»"~/?*{@»!%-$#~-·=;}"
TO 2009.11.06 WEST EARTH TIME
´|}(!½~%!*~{\@/?_'#+«@|["¬`^()
stay extension available to indeterminate date
»»)£|_=¬··(\§#+§;?-½|}/½¬:;_]{
below are the coordinates
%)½-£½"£{(;/££$¬«`´«~*:)½|#¬=+_
proceed with extreme caution
/@(~£\@_¬*¬/:½$£;"}&½*)(^"£`^;
details are classified information
¬!~"\'(;)½»'@!]~)£/!'($~%=/+?$
hatch doors open before 09h00 WEST EARTH TIME and after
19h00 WEST EARTH TIME )·/+£¬´'^"*'[§
godspeed starstuff
☆★☆☆★★★☆☆☆☆☆
£)@¬-[(;`½[)´*/=·¹~(;'&&"%#@})"
$//[»%::~$"§*·¹~(;'&&"%&§¹ TRANSMISSION ENDED
////////////////

 


I caught the overnight train from Madrid to Lisbon and arrived early in the morning, still completely unsure of what I was about to walk into.  I rode the metro to his house and watched the commuters shuffling in and out on their way to work.  Normal people.  I wondered what my weekend with The Anarchist would entail. 

The house looked normal enough from the outside.  I glanced at the note in my hand: Number 27, Ground Floor


His door had a sign over it with a symbol and a message which read:

Left is right
Reverse your thinking
Counter-Clockwise insight

No need for tinkering



There are many clear No’s
That we Yes far too frequently
But at this humble hatch it isn’t so

We cherish our misanthropy

 

Odd.  I rang the doorbell.  Nothing.  I rang it two more times with no success.  I looked at my watch and wondered if he had already gone to work.  

Then I heard a rumble on the other side of the wall and suddenly the door swung open and revealed a shirtless, dreadlocked, unshaven man rubbing his eyes. 

“I was sleeping,” he said. 

“Sorry, I didn’t know if…” I started, but he cut me off. 

“Don’t worry about it.  Look,” He slapped his hand against a laminated sheet of paper on the wall, “Here are the guidelines of the house.  Read them so you know what to expect in my house. I’m going back to sleep.”   With that, he turned, stumbled back upstairs and slammed his door shut behind him.

I read the laminated paper:

WE PROVIDE:
4 beds; 2 emergency beds; 3 tents; 2 lounge beds; internet access; wifi in the garden; musical instruments; movie nights; free dumpster dived food; communal dinners; insightful dissertations on the human condition; offensive humor; smelly feet; genuine honesty; an average of 2-5 people from all over the world every day; walking distance from bus stations and the airport; fast cheap transportation all day and night to all turisty shit; occasional crazy drunken nights; keys to get in; international swear words; rare variants of the flu virus; chance of getting an STD from a different continent; multicolored hair clogging the drain; graffiti all over the place; cheap strobe light induced spasms and seizures while dancing in the kitchen; no bullshit at all.

WE REQUIRE:
NOTHING! you do whatever the fuck you want. if you are looking for friendship, meaningful connections, sex, pampering or some kind of tour guide you can look somewhere else. it's a free place to stay. that's it. stop whining. I don't even care if you read this. that big (A) is real. if you understand that, you are very welcome to the shit hole.

 

The rules were what you might expect from an anarchist – there were none.  Only guidelines.  And though CouchSurfing is predicated on the tacit understanding that the guest gives back to his host in exchange for the hospitality, The Anarchist made no such obligations.  All he asked was that his guests not be abusive assholes – though he defended their right to be so if they wished. 

I let out a deep breath and decided to take a tour of The Anarchist’s pad. 

The kitchen was a disaster.  The combination of countless communal dinners and collective neglect had left the place in a shambles.  Half-clean pots and pans huddled around the sink, half-eaten leftovers rotted away on the counter, and half-drunk wine bottles belched the stench of cheap port into the stale air.

The “Surfers’ Room” was a fifteen square foot space crammed wall to wall with four mattresses.  An old computer was wedged in the corner.  Two or three people were buried under the covers sleeping.  I could only see an odd-number of feet poking out from below.  I dropped my backpack on the ground and jumped back when I heard the frightened yelp of a dog emerge from under my bag.  

Jesus, I thought. This is going to be one hell of an interesting weekend.