Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rhapsody in Blue

It´s a beautiful day. Perfect.

The sky is a pure blue. No breaks or blends or clouds. Just an endless expanse of blueness.

It seems as if the palm trees have been strategically positioned by God (or man playing Him) to flutter their fronds against the sky.

If it weren´t for the shadows, the Spanish-tiled roofs would seem two-dimensional.

The colors here are so crisp.

Terracotta houses and white villas. Candy apple red geraniums nestled in vivid greenery. Flowers painted bright pink or orange or snow white.

The swimming pool water sparkles like undulating glass.

The southern coast of Spain is tropical desert.
Tufts of tough-looking brush dot the rocky sand dunes. Hills of powdered heat.

On a rock nearby sits a dull gray sandpiper. He looks much like a pencil smudge on an otherwise colorful canvas. But his song is clear and piercing.
And if sound had color, his song would be purple and gold....rising into the endless blue.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Finding "The Charlotte"

I know I´ve been writing a lot about what I´ve seen here, but not so much about the reasons why I came.
The first few weeks were a mix of frustration and intrigue. I fluctuated between a sense of adventure and loneliness.
Finally, I´m coming to terms with the fact that this trip did not bring the instant and lasting gratification I´d originally though it would.
I came here hoping to find my destiny... the final piece to the Who-is-Faith? puzzle.
It´s not here.

But during a conversation with my significant other, something that was said struck me. I can´t remember who said it, but it was something like "the search [for self-actualization] continues."

"It´s like finding The Charlotte!" I blurted.

In the movie National Treasure, Nicolas Cage´s character is a historian and treasure hunter. He´d devoted his whole life to finding a particular caché of hidden treasure, as had his father and grandfather before him. They had been chasing clue after clue, but the biggest clue yet, passed down from generation to generation was a man´s dying words. "The secret lies with Charlotte."
This launched Cage into a long and expensive venture to find "Charlotte". When he finally found it [Charlotte was a boat], the treasure wasn´t he had expected. Instead, he found yet another clue.
Spain is my "Charlotte".

I didn´t find my niche here as I had expected. Instead I´m uncovering clues as to who I really am and what I am meant to do.
They can be summarized as follows:

  1. I need people. I love sharing experiences with others. Whatever I end up doing, wherever it is, I don´t want to go alone.
  2. I respect those who enjoy "roughing it", but I have no desire to do so myself. I enjoy...want...need the finer things in life (like a/c). I don´t have to feel guilty about that either.
  3. I have to find a way to make a difference in the world (as cliched as this may sound). I want to feel like what I´m doing will have a lasting, positive effect on the lives of others. Other people´s desire for what I have to offer fuels my desire to give it.

Now, I can take these back with me... my clues... these pieces to the puzzle and continue my search for the biggest treasure of all.
Exactly what that is...I´ve yet to find out.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Long Night´s Journey Into Day

...continued from "Independent´s Day"
(if you haven´t read that one, read it first)

In the dim lamplight, I read. Turning the pages softly so as not to disturb Nancy, but I needn´t have bothered. There´s no way she could really be sleeping under the circumstances. Our hostal room faced the street, a popular busy paseo in the center of Madrid. The walls of the building, which had seemed dense enough from the outside, did absolutely nothing to filter the noise.
It was half past 1 am and the streets were more crowded than they had been during the day. The more conservative tourists had retired to their hotel rooms (as we had done) and had been replaced with a mix of nightlife-loving internationals and natives. Bright lights, copious amount of cerveza and the promise of good times lifted their spirits and their voices. Conversations rose from the streets and entered our room unhindered.
I gave up trying to read and switched off the lamp. It had started to overheat the already uncomfortably warm quarters anyway.

I tried to find a comfortable position for my head, but the pillow, which felt just like a thick sofa cushion, was resistant. A whole hour passed as I lay eyes open, wondering just how easy it might be for an intruder to climb from balcony to balcony and enter the open patio door in our bathroom I dared not close it. The open door was our only source of ventilation. Opening the door behind my bed would only let in more noise, as if this were even possible. But it was too hot to sleep...and too loud.
You see, I´m already a light sleeper. Turning on a light or opening a door is enough to bring me all the way out of REM. Even before becoming a mother, it´s been like that. But tonight was different. Sleep couldn´t get a grip on me. The riotous sounds from the street prevented it.

The hours crawled by, punctuated by new noises. Motorcycles revved by, horns honked and curious knocks and bumps mixed with half-shouted conversations. Occasionally, bellows of raucous laughter echoed in the air.

I wanted to scream, but somebody outside was doing it for me.

That´s when I knew that not taking the time to look for a nicer hotel with quiet, elegant rooms had been a mistake... one I would pay for over and over again...all night.
Dawn came and finally, the noise died down. I could hardly believe that I´d been awake the entire night. I forced myself into fitful sleep around 7:00 am. We´d have to get up at 8:30 in order to catch the train to Toledo.

It was only after my eyes were closed that I began to see.

I only took up one small corner of the world. I existed in a tiny room in a hostal in Madrid. My sleepless night was luxurious compared to that of the homeless mother beneath me on the street. It was paled in comparison to those of the defeated and abused in war-ravaged countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. My fear shrank in the shadow of the terror so many others faced each night.
My experience was only a mild inconvenience in an otherwise fortunate existence. As the sun peered through the window and sleep let me go, I steeled myself up for another glorious, beautiful day. Another adventure.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ain´t that a beach!

Last Friday, we traveled down south to the coast of Spain. The 5 hour trip took a grueling 8 hours. In the mini-van, along with piles of luggage, bicycles and other sporting equipment were one chatty father, one slightly frazzled mother, an Ecuadorian housekeeper, three bickering children, one long haired-hamster...and me.
And if you want to know why I don´t even want to talk about it, you do the math (I teach English).
Sancti Petri is a vacation getaway right outside of the seaside city of Cádiz. It´s known for it´s long stretches of sandy beaches, rolling green golf courses, resort-style vacation homes and 5-star hotels. The Antuñano´s recently purchased a 4 bedroom townhouse within a bike-ride of the beach.
Now, I must say, I enjoy lounging around as much as the next person, but I´ve made a startling (to me) discovery.

Days spent at the beach are little more than an exercise in covert vanity.

Right now, I´m at the beach, sitting on a rough-hewn red & yellow towel (colors of Spain) right on the bull´s face. The sun is having a staring contest with this part of the world. The sun is winning. It´s a wonder my book hasn´t burst into flames in my hand.
Scantily clad people parade up and down the shore pretending to ignore the sunbathers who are pretending to ignore them. They all want to be watched.
Why else would a person prance around half naked in the blazing hot sun?
Ocean winds armed with handfuls of sand beat on my sizzling skin. The sharp grains burrow into every available crevice, particularly those dampened with perspiration.
The backs of my knees, my ears, hair and the tiny rivulet trickling down my chest are coated with sand. Even the gum in my mouth is a bit gritty.
Of the few things in life that I hate (aside from roaches and trashcans with no bag) are...
1. Sweating
2. Being dirty
3. Intense direct sunlight

Days at the beach are a combination of all of these things multiplied by screaming, undisciplined children and raised to the 5th power by the guilt of not enjoying it.

It´s endlessly ironic how the same people who regard the dark-skin with such disdain (mild as it may be), spend countless hours begging the sun to darken their own skin.
I´m begging the sun to stop. It´s not listening.
Oh well.

Aint that a beach.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ridin' Dirty

Just as I topped the hill I saw it; the bright, green bus pulling into the stop. I broke into a jog, flip-flops slapping the concrete.
I reached the back of the bus just as the driver opened the door and stepped out into the sun. A gust of conditioned air blew out behind him, but was quickly swallowed by the insistent July heat.
The driver walked right past the waiting travelers without so much as a nod. He headed straight for the Centro Commercial, lighting a cigarette he had no chance of finishing before reaching the store's automatic doors.
Disgusted by the driver's insolence, the dusty heat and myself for having run halfway to the bus stop for nothing, I propped myself up against a partially-shaded post and prepared myself to wait until the driver felt like coming back to continue his route.
Six grueling minutes passed. The sun beat down relentlessly. To my surprise, I heard laughter as two women bearing multiple grocery bags chatted cheerfully with each other. The long white head-wraps and shapeless dresses told me that they were Muslim. The harsh sounding language they spoke was softened by their shared smiles and laughter. I was so busy trying to make out their conversation (in spite of the fact that I know absolutely NO Arabic), that I almost didn't notice the driver's reluctant return.
I boarded the bus, dropping a handful of coins, not bothering to wait for my receipt. The driver lurched off without waiting for any of us to sit down. Our relationship would be temporary and loveless.

The bus rocked and rumbled its way through the streets of Pozuelo.
Immediately following a symphony of squeaks, groans and hydraulic releases, indicating that the bus was stopping to let on (or off) another round of passengers, I was struck full-force by a pungent odor. It was the unmistakable scent of high-must...the kind which can only be achieved by sweating until soaked, drying out in the sun, then sleeping in a dumpster (repeat cycle 2-3 times without changing clothes). I turned around to find the origin.
Behind me stood a presumably foreign man, crisped several shades beyond black by years in the sun. The air around him (and me) became thick with funk. I practiced shallow breathing and turned my attention to the scenes sliding past my window.

The streets were lined with life-sized wind-up cars, parallel parked so close together that bumpers kissed. I wondered how the owners hoped to maneuver their way out into traffic without hitting the neighboring cars. By the looks of some of the bumpers, this was not a concern for anyone but me. A scattering of shoppers and white-collar workers rushed to their respective appointments. Yet others sat lounging at cafes laughing, smoking and sipping like they were being paid to do it.

Meanwhile, the man behind me continued stinking with the tenacity of an if he had finally made it to Beijing and his country was depending on him to bring home the gold, thereby bringing hope and promise to its struggling economy.
Thinking of it this way helped me endure the bitter burning in the back of my throat.

I went back to staring out the window. A few moments later, there was a noticeable unburdening of the air as the man found a seat further behind me. The remainder of the trip was comparatively uneventful.

We arrived, in tact, at the Metro station. It promised to be a veritable buffet of people-watching opportunities. I'd better get my notebook ready. But first, I needed to get some fresh, subway station air.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Independent's Day

For the Independence Day weekend, Nancy (a fellow language assistant from North Carolina) and I had planned to take the night train to Barcelona, sight-see all day Saturday, rent a room, explore some more on Sunday and then return to Madrid by night-train...arriving early Monday morning.
So much for our plans.
When we met up at the Chamartin station early Friday evening, the train to Barcelona was sold out.
The million-dollar question..."what do we do now?"

Since coming to Madrid, I've become a lot more flexible about things. Normally, I'm a stresser. I live by a fairly tight scheduled (my days portioned out by class periods with each section of the day assigned before I get out of bed). Too many changes to the schedule leave me annoyed and tense.

But here, I've adopted a much more casual persona, one which comes easily to a person suddenly (if temporarily) liberated from obligations and responsibilities.

Nancy mentioned the idea of going to Toledo.

"Yes," I said with resignation, "we'll just go to Toledo tomorrow."

Within seconds, we had agreed to buy tickets to Toledo, find a room in Madrid for the night and go out to dinner to celebrate the 4th of July. It was indeed an "Independence Day" for me. I exulted in the freedom to do only and exactly what I wanted. The thought was almost a spiritual experience. My world was alive with the sound of music.
As we chatted on the Metro, tossing possibilities into the plot of our would-be adventure, the evening in Madrid stretched out before us, glamorous and inviting.

But, at the Atoche Renfe station, the music faded away. Our spirits were deflated. It seemed like Madrid had withdrawn her invitation.

Signage in the station was sparse, directions were unclear, lines frustratingly long, and our elementary Spanish insufficient. We had stood in 3 customer service lines, spoken with two security guards and struggled with 3 ticket machines before laying hands on our billetes to

Two hours of our glamorous evening had passed. The strap of my messenger bag, stuffed with books, clothes and necessities for the weekend, dug mercilessly into my shoulder and collarbone. We had yet to find a room for the night.
Yet somehow, we emerged from the train station with American resolve. After all, we had gotten tickets. We would conquer this city!

The search was on for a hostel. Cities like Madrid are liberally sprinkled with them. Students, travelers on a budget and, according to John Irving's Until I Find You, single-mother tattoo artists, seek out the sparsely-furnished lodgings. They're cheap. We'd just have to find one that was "okay".
The first featured an ambiguously homeless man sitting near the doorway, listening to a portable cd player. The sidewalk was peppered with other colorful characters. Nancy and I had not come to a complete stop before lurching off in the opposite direction.
Around the corner from the police station, facing a cobblestone square near the Reina Sofia Museum, we found the Hostal Buelta.

The surroundings seemed safe enough. Tourists and natives sipped wine or coffee at outdoor cafes situated in the courtyard. We went in. The lobby was small, but clean. Marble tile floors led to a simple registration desk behind which sat a man who looked to me like he could be Ukrainian.

He spoke only Spanish.

We asked about vacancy and prices and if we could see the room (Nancy read that we should do this in Rick Steve's Guide to Spain). We climbed two flights of stairs and peered down the dim, narrow halls. Finally, we found #218 and wriggled the key in the door. The door swung open revealing...almost nothing. Nancy found the light switch and two fluorescent tubes flickered overhead. The room looked like something out of a National Geographic documentary. Two narrow beds, a few rickety-looking nightstands, a wardrobe, a mustard-yellow lamp, and a 17 inch tv attached to the wall. That's all.

I checked the bathroom. There was a pedestal sink and a shower, separated from the bedroom by a sliding door. But there was something missing...the toilet. I looked again. Surely I had just overlooked it. Nope. No toilet.

Tired of walking, and ready to begin our glorious evening, we rented the room.
We changed clothes for the evening, deciding we'd just ask the East European Spaniard about the toilet on the way out.

It wasn't long before my fellow independent and I found ourselves winding through the narrow streets of Madrid (which, unlike American alleys, are well-lit and fairly busy). Vendors rearranged their colorful wares, music wafted out of open windows, openly affectionate couples clutched each other, pausing in doorways (or right in front of me) for an uncomfortably long session of pda.

A pitcher of sangria later, we sat outside of a cafe, listening to the sonorous moans of an accordion, fanning away cigarette smoke and street vendors. *sigh* Ah...Madrid.

Our conversation reached a lull. My thoughts turned to the very idea of the independence being celebrated with bbq and firecrackers back home. By definition, independence is the condition of being politically free & self-governing. It is not to mean that I am exonerated from ALL responsibility, but rather that I HAVE the responsibility...and govern myself.
How can I take full advantage of my independence?
I start by doing, seeing, exploring, tasting, experiencing and I'm doing right now. Hoping to become a better governor of myself.
Nancy and I topped off our evening by having dinner at an Indian Restaurant (very American, eh?). We returned to the hostel. Our night out had been something short of glamorous, but every bit independent.
But the night wasn't over yet. I had no idea what a long one it would be.

Saturday, July 5, 2008