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.


  1. So what's your favorite Theroux book? I loved 'The Patagonia Express'.

    The United Nations of San Sebastian sounds like a good place to be ;)