Sunday, April 27, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 2)

Arriving back at the apartment, we cramped into the tiny elevator together with a short, husky looking, balding Spanish man. As he leaves the elevator, he looks us in the eye, and says "Adiós!" in a fast, forceful manner. It sounded so different than what I had expected that I didn't even figure out what he said until Felix started imitating him after the doors closed again. I am always fascinated by the manner of speech in different cultures, as that way someone says something conveys a lot about their culture and their view of the world. Although the "Adiós!" did not have that sense of courtesy conveyed in North America, it sounded much more sincere and trustworthy.

Walking into the apartment, I flick the light switch. Nothing. We try another switch. Still nothing. For the next ten minutes, we run around the apartment trying various switches, but we still had no lights. I was mentally retracing through everything I did before leaving the apartment to figure out if it was something I did. In the end, we decide to leave a note on their door and hope we didn't break the electrical system in their apartment.

Before we leave, we step onto the enclosed balcony to take a quick view of the city. Among the drying clothes and other clutter on the balcony, we noticed a plant on a table. It was a plant about a metre tall with long stalks and thin, palmately compounded leaves with serrated edges. "Uh... is that...?" Felix says. We look at each other. "I think it is...." It was a young cannabis plant. Suddenly, I notice that the balcony was actually filled with the smell of cannabis, and that you can actually smell strong wafts of this distinct smell inside the apartment from time to time. I wonder how that fact had escaped me earlier. It was the first time we had been so close to a cannabis plant. I examined it. It was a beautiful plant, well formed, healthy, like a very well treated houseplant. On the leaves, you can see some of the shiny grey resin that can be rubbed off using your palm and then scraped off to make hashish. We would later find out that their friend had given them the cannabis plant. Their friend had given up on keeping the plant because his dog would find the plant and eat it, no matter where he hid it.

Leaving the apartment, we stick the note on the door. We decide to take a short walk around the old part of Madrid since we are located quite close to it. Using a map I obtained from the tourist information desk at the airport, we start walking to the Royal Palace, the first point of interest along our route. Walking up to a gate by the Palace, we realize that we were on the wrong side. It was a gate that opened into a wooded park with a long, straight tree-lined road. According to the map, the Palace was somewhere on the other side of the compound. Peering into the gate, a guard stopped us and directed us to go back and around to the other side.

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 1)

When I woke up, it was broad daylight and the apartment was empty. When I check the time, I am surprised to find that I had been asleep for ten hours. I normally can't sleep that well the first day of a trip, due to a combination of excitement and jet lag. I was very happy to find this out, as I woke up feeling fully refreshed and no longer jet lagged. It was still morning, and Felix was due to arrive in Madrid at 1pm on a flight from Munich, where he was visiting his father. I told him that I would meet him at the Príncipe Pío subway station at 1:45pm. I had a few hours to burn.

Since this was my first Couchsurfing experience, I was feeling generous. After brushing my teeth and washing the clothing I wore the day before in a dirty sink in their secondary washroom, I gave their sink a quick cleaning. After that, I went to take a shower. Their shower in the main washroom was comfortable and very ordinary by North American standards, except for one feature. Right above the bathtub was a frosted window that slid open into a dark cavity the seemed to stretch all the way from the top to the bottom of the building. I can only assume this tiny channel is used as a ventilation shaft. I wondered if any smells from another person's bathroom would waft through this window into their apartment. However, what made this window most uncomfortable was the fact that right across the way, within an arm's length, was another window that opened into someone else's washroom. While I was on the can before taking the shower, the window across the way lit up, and I can see someone's arm reaching for the mirror in the washroom across the way! I noted how this lack of privacy would never be acceptable in North America, but seemed to be common elsewhere in the world.

Refreshed and almost time to meet Felix, I left the apartment. On the way out, I got a call from Felix, who had just landed. He told me that his plane was late, and that it would be another hour until he arrives at our meeting point. I returned to the apartment to do some light reading before meeting up with Felix.

Even in the apartment, you can hear the hum from the action in the streets below. I had missed this noise very much living in North America. In North America, you either heard nothing if you lived in the suburbs, or heard cars roaring past your window if you lived in a city. On other continents, you also hear cars, but mixed with the sounds of adults and children talking, arguing, laughing, and playing in the streets as there is a smaller reliance on cars in cultures outside of North America. The streets are filled with more action, are more alive, and is more personal.

At 2:30, I leave the apartment to walk to the subway station to meet with Felix. On the cramped elevator ride, a woman started talking to me in Spanish. I just smiled and nodded. At first, I walk into the station as I don't see him around. Not finding Felix inside, I decide to wait outside. As I was sitting around near the entrance, I see from the corner of my eye someone with a large backpack. It's Felix! We were very happy and excited to see each other, a moment worth remembering. After exchanging hugs and some excited chatter, I lead Felix back to the apartment so that he can put his pack down and freshen up for our first (half) day of exploring. I had chosen not to go see any of the main sights the day before partly so that we can catch the main sights together.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 1 (Part 5)

After a final walk through the park, it was about time to head over to my Couchsurfing host's apartment. The bright midday light was now becoming weaker and warmer, adding a yellow-orange glow to everything. There also seems to be less people around now. After picking up my pack from Atocha Renfe, I taking the metro to Príncipe Pío station and emerge onto a busy, but not very central, square in the middle of a roundabout. Using a crude map I drew of the area, I set off finding their apartment. I walk along a street lined with shops and restaurants. All the restaurants were busy setting up chairs and tables along the sidewalks. At this point, everything was covered with a warm orange glow from the setting sun. Walking over a neat little dam and pedestrian bridge construction over a mostly dried river, a series of apartment buildings loomed ahead. I went to the wrong building at first, but was directed to the correct one with much pointing, motioning, and repeated counting to communicate numbers to me.

Finally, I arrive at their building. It was a 17 story rectangular building covered in red bricks at the end of a small, rather empty road. There was bus station in front of it, and trees lined the chaotic street. There was a small plaza with a small supermarket beside the building. Walking up to the iron gates of the building and checking to make sure I was at the right address, I type in my host's apartment number and wait. I had arrived at 8pm, one hour later than planned.

I was very glad to hear the voice over the intercom recognize my name, and was buzzed in immediately. The inside of the building had a small lobby, with a large photo of an areal view of Madrid. The corridors were dark and lined with dark polished wood. Going up a cramped elevator, I emerge in a similarly dark and wooden hallway. There were a few over-sized, heavy-looking wooden doors blending into the walls lined with the same wood panelling. In the middle of each door, at just below the level of your waist, was a large, bronze knob that you can grab onto, but could not be turned.

Knocking on the door, I was let in by Adolfo, my Couchsurfing host. He was Spanish, had short hair, glasses, and had a friendly but direct mannerism. He lived with a French Canadian and another Spanish girl who where all quit friendly and seemed to be very social. They were all students. They had a small narrow room that they dedicated to Couchsurfing guests. There was a small bed in it that seemed to take up more than half the room. From the single window at the end of the room, you can look toward central Madrid up a hill. There was a calendar at the opposite wall, filled up with people's names on the different days. "Mark and Felix" was marked across June 4 to June 7. After dropping off my stuff and meeting everyone else in the apartment, I was informed that they had their weekly Monday get-together with their friends tonight, and I was invited.

Shortly, at around 9pm, we headed out. During the walk, I was told that we are going to Casa Mingo, a somewhat historic joint that specializes in hard cider and roast chicken. Casa Mingo is located a large informal stone building, with vaulted ceilings and large wooden tables adorning it's loud and hectic interior. There were many young people here, many of them students. Right away, we ordered some roast chicken to start off the night. For the rest of the time there, we would order a plate of chicken whenever we ran out, as we all shared from one common plate and ate with a shared fork. As good as the chicken was, the highlight of the trip to Casa Mingo was most definitely the cider. Casa Mingo had been famous for some time for the cider that they brew, and although I am not a cider connoisseur, I can tell you that the cider I had that night was the most delicious cider I have ever had.

The cider was very fresh tasting and refreshing. It was vibrant and a joy to drink. As with the chicken, we also drank out of the a communal glass, poured from the same one litre bottle of cider. It seems that that Spanish have cider drinking down to an art. To get the best flavour, you must pour a small amount of cider from as high up as possible, making sure the stream hits the inner wall of the tilted glass, and then drink it immediately, a process called throwing the cider. I watched as people held the tilted glass in one hand as low as possible, and stretched with all of their might, balancing the bottle of cider precariously high above their heads, aimed, and poured. I even got a few practise pours in during the night. We watched some of the other patrons do it with a more difficult technique, holding the cider bottle behind their heads, and pouring the cider from behind their backs. I was told that you can tell that someone is from the Basque (or was it the Asturias?) region if they pour their cider that way.

The mouthful of cider poured in this way was opaque and churning with tiny bubbles, as opposed to the transparent, serene-looking cider in the bottle. You drink the cider as soon as it is poured. As tradition dictates, one leaves a small amount of cider in the glass after drinking from it, which is then poured onto the stone floor of the pub from the side of the glass you drank the cider, to rinse the shared glass. As a demonstration, I was given cider poured into the glass from a small height, and then cider poured from a great height to taste the difference. The difference in taste was surprising! There was nothing subtle about it! The "un-thrown" cider tasted good - like how good, refreshing apple cider should taste. However, when thrown, the cider came alive! All the off flavours were gone and all the good flavours were magnified many times over. It became crisp and clean. It was a world of difference. Instead of tasting like apple juice, it tasted just like biting in to a fresh apple just plucked from a tree. I made a mental note to always throw cider before drinking it from now on.

Only two of their friends dropped by briefly that night. Supposedly their weekly get-togethers would vary in size unpredictably every week. As the night went on, the area of wet stone under our feet grew larger and larger with every drop of cider spilt from a pour. Soon, it was time to return, and after a quick shower, I went to bed. Taking one last look at the scene outside my window, I was glad the time for sleep had come, after only getting about half an hour of sleep in two days. As I fall asleep, I think about what I've experienced so far, how much more there is to come, as well as looking forward to meeting up with Felix tomorrow.

Madrid - El Retiro - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 1 (Part 4)

I explore the area a little bit more after lunch, walking around the park. I walk through a pedestrian road lined with stalls selling low-priced used books. I buy a postcard. I plan on sending a postcard to my parents from every city I go to, just as I did during my trip in the winter. This way, my parents will be able to track my progress through Europe and I can share a little bit of that excitement and spirit of exploration with my parents.

Returning to the park, I find a bench in a nice, quite shady area. I settle in and read The Da Vinci Code. It was the only paperback book I found at home that could bring with me on my trip. It is always a good idea to carry a light book with you for those times when you have nothing better to do. I only started the book earlier today, but have already blasted through almost half of the novel. I spent the day reading and strolling through the park, taking photos once in a while. I even had others take a photo of me to commemorate the first day of my trip. Settling down to read again, I look forward to spending the next half hour or so reading quietly, enjoying more of the serene scenery around me, listening to the birds, and finding out how Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu were going to get out of their current dilemma.

After a while, an old man saunters over and stops near me, looking as if he needed a place to sit. Moving my bags from the other side of the bench, I smiled at him to offer him a seat. Smiling back, he plops down on the bench right next to me. "Wow." I think, "I guess people in Spain are just like people in Asia where they don't need a large personal space." I continue reading for another minute or so until I finish the chapter.

Seeing that this is a good opportunity to meet a local, I glance over and ask "Do you speak English?" No. "Parlez-vous Français?" "Un peu." After some wrangling, I find that he doesn't seem to speak enough French to carry a conversation so I decide to go back to reading. "Chaud?" I look over. I see him grinning at me and making a "take off your shirt" motion while nodding. OK, that was weird. I shake my head. Now I'm a little freaked out. But looking around, I notice that many people have their shirts off. I also remember seeing many people with their shirts off in the streets while I was walking around. Maybe it's common for people to have their shirts off, and the old man didn't know how to say anything else in French. OK, I'm just going to pretend I misheard and go back to reading. Suddenly, a hand on my leg. Hmm.... this seems a lot like that scene on the train in Eurotrip. Maybe he's just being affectionate. After all, it's really only in North America that people are so afraid of contact. OK, I'll let it slide just this once. A minute later, he starts rubbing my shoulder and feeling my biceps... while stopping whenever someone walks by. OK, now I'm not sure this is normal even for Europeans anymore! I think of an excuse to leave... after all, isn't it rude to leave without saying anything when someone's befriending you? Suddenly, someone walks by, stoops in front of the old man and talks to him like a friend. A second later, they seem to be in some kind of disagreement, and the old man is handing the other person a five Euro bill. Right then, I receive a phone message from my parents. I Pick up my phone, pretend to take an important call, and walk away.

What an wonderful first day in Europe. I was targeted by a team of pickpockets, hit on by an old man on a park bench, and was the star of a show about the dangers of the sun that my audience interpreted as me brushing my teeth.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Madrid - El Retiro - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 1 (Part 3)

Walking through bustling corridors filled with shops and people hurrying in the morning rush hour, I find an information booth to ask for directions. After some more walking, and guessing at which corridors I was supposed to walk down, I emerge into an enormous atrium with a garden containing full sized palm trees, and restaurants and stalls lining the sides. Following the signs from here, I find the luggage storage room, hidden behind all the action, in an unsightly corner of the station. After going through a brief security check, I find the smallest, and cheapest, locker I can fit my gear in, prepare a small day pack, and deposit some coins. Finally, I was free of my debilitating pack.

Freedom. That was all I felt at that moment. No school, no work, no pack, no responsibilities. Walking back through the lobby, I stop to marvel at the palm garden. There were a variety of tropical plants there, and a system of pipes and nozzles to spray the plants with warm mist from time to time. This was my first vision of Spain, my first vision of what was to come for the next two and a half months. To mark this moment, I take a photo of the palm garden. The first of thousands of photos that I would take at hundreds of different places this summer.

I decide to take it easy today. After a long flight across many time zones with nearly no sleep, I though it would be a good idea to have a relaxing day in the sun to recover from my trip and to readjust my circadian rhythm. I had the perfect place to go. Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid's most famous park. Covering 350 acres, it would provide a full day's worth of relaxation and casual exploration.

Walking out of the station, I take a brief tour of the neighbourhood. A cozy melange of bustling cafés and small, quiet back streets lined with worn-in, distinctly Spanish buildings full of character. The bright sun woke me up and made me feel alive and energetic even after a sleepless night. Passing by small lucotorios, offering Internet and phone service, I make a mental note of their prices, as I know I will be relying on e-mail and Internet to coordinate, research, and organize my trip as I go. Ambling toward El Retiro, I enjoy the stately architecture along the way. Before long, I was walking through the lush greenery of the park among tall, twisted trees, fountains, lakes, and statues. There was a very well laid-out rose garden, the famous Monument to Alfonso XII, and the beautiful Palacio de Cristal. I enjoyed finding small, out of the way paths winding through the dense forest, through beautiful gardens filled with a variety of different flowers and plants. I sat by a lake to watch ducks, fish, and turtles race to reach breadcrumbs thrown in by locals.

Around lunch time, I walked out of the park to grab something simple to eat. Throughout the trip, I would do most of my eating at simple local shops or buy ingredients from markets and supermarkets. On the way back to the park, I decide to get some sunscreen since I didn't bring any liquids or gels due to the new restrictions on carry-on luggage.

After exploring some shops, I realize that sunscreen was sold only in pharmacies, all of which are marked by disproportionally large, green neon signs flashing a dizzying array of complicated patterns. Walking into a pharmacy, or rather, buzzing into a pharmacy since all pharmacy doors are locked, I patiently waited for the person ahead of me to complete her purchase. The pharmacist smiled at me. I start "... uh... do you speak English?" A blank stare. Unfortunately for me, I discovered only later that surprisingly few people in Spain can actually understand any English, but a good portion of the population understands French. Not having thought this through and not having a backup plan, I quickly scan the shelves that I can see for sunscreen. Nothing. "Umm.... sun?" I point to the sky. "Creme. Lotion!" I smile and rub my left arm with my right hand. A puzzled look followed by some words spoken in Spanish that sounded like a question Now being caught completely off guard, I repeat my gestures, this time with more vigour. Now I'm also rubbing my face and play-acting an entire scene in which I look at the sun, appear threatened by it, and am rubbing sunscreen all over, interspersed some some related words such as "sun" or "sunburn." Suddenly, the pharmacist looks like she understands, walks into the back room and comes out with a small tube. It was toothpaste. At first, I started making the motion of rejecting the toothpaste, but realizing that I was already embarrassed enough and not wanting to continue my silent play about me cowering from the sun, I smile and pretend it's what I want. I pay one Euro, butcher the pronunciation of "gracias" and walk out. As I walk out, the pharmacist was beaming about the fact that she was able to figure out what I came in to buy.

I was eventually able to find a tube of sunscreen at another pharmacy, but it was very expensive, so I thought I would wait until Morocco to buy a tube, hoping that it would be cheaper there. It turns out sunscreen can be ordered by saying "solar" in a Spanish pharmacy. I feel stupid not trying that earlier.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 1 (Part 2)

The main lobby of the airport was run down, dark, with a rather drab brownish colour scheme. With the heat, humidity, and the disarray caused by some maintenance work, the place rather reminded me of the Varadero Airport in Cuba. From the information booth, I followed the signs pointing me in the direction of the metro station. Leading me through various corridors, turns, and different lobby areas that become emptier and more desolate with every doorway I pass through, I start wondering if I was going the right way. Eventually, I give up, and backtracking a little bit, I head out the doors into the open. I had been looking forward to this moment as I had caught glances of the surrounding countryside through the windows ever since I was standing in line at customs.

It was hot. And humid. The climate is very different from home. Seeing the bright blue sky and the bustling cars and buses that look older and more run-down compared to what I see at home, I feel like I'm in a foreign land. There was barely any English in sight. I suddenly felt and intense feeling of freedom. There was no more school to worry about for I had graduated, and my job wasn't starting for another three months. I had absolutely no responsibilities or expectations and had come away victorious, with a double major from a top-tier university with various honours. Above all, I was in a strange land with so many many things to explore. For the next few months, I can live my life anyway I want to. It was the most freedom I had ever felt, unlike anything I had felt before. I was completely liberated.

I was completely liberated except for one thing. My pack. I hate carrying my pack on hot and humid days. Even with moderate activity, you can't help but sweat a bit on a hot and humid day. Even the slightest amount of moisture would pool behind a large, heavy backpack after an hour or so, putting a oval of dark, sticky, clingy, uncomfortable mess on the back of your shirt. I had to get rid of my pack, the sooner the better.

After a short period of exploring, I finally find the metro station at the airport. I was lucky. Having arrived very early in the morning, the metro system wasn't overly crowded yet, making for a comfortable ride. Having a large backpack on with a Canadian flag on it, however, made me stand out on a subway in Madrid, a fact which I was painfully aware of. I was especially self-conscious of my situation since this was the first day of my trip, and had not yet grown accustomed to being the odd one out yet. Wanting to avoid crowds and potential pick-pockets, I stood off to one side of the car I was in, away from the crowds.

The train started to fill up on the way to Atocha Renfe, although there was still enough room to easily get to the doors. Eventually, I noticed two men standing to either side of me, almost squeezing me into a corner of the train by the doors, away from most of the other passengers. This was suspicious enough to me that I lowered my hands to protect the pockets that contained my camera (which was large and bulky), and my wallet (which I tied with a string to my belt for extra security). I noticed one of the men draped a thin jacket across his arm, and the two men were glancing at each other, and would sneak quick looks in my direction. I pretended not to notice. As we neared a station, with me in alert mode, I noticed I was being slowly squeezed toward the doors by the two men. As the doors opened, I ducked between them with my hands by my pockets. They exited at the same time, squeezing me between them. All of a sudden, I felt a hand in my pocket, fumbling around as if trying to find something to grab a hold of. It was subtle, and would have gone unnoticed if I hadn't been paying attention. I quickly raised my hand of slapped his. A second later, the two men were out of my subway, with the closing doors separating me from them. Checking all of my pockets, I was relieved that I hadn't lost anything. I hadn't expected to come into contact with pickpockets so early in my trip. I had expected to lose some money during my trip since I figure you can't completely avoid pickpockets and other criminals over a trip so long. Even so, I decided to be constantly on the lookout for suspicious behaviour.