The Spanish Inquisition: Life As An Adventurer
The morning I posted my last column, classes started, and I soon realized that in terms of its interest in the bottle and its disinterest in assimilating into Spain, the lion’s share of this group is no different than the last one. Despite all the words I wrote in July about how much I loved the summer trip, then, as now, I was often restless among the crowd and yearning to strike out on my own. This time I know the ropes, so that’s exactly what I’ve done. My fellow Dukies aren’t bad people; we’ll likely still all be friends when this is over. We just have different philosophies about study abroad. Our program is titled “Duke in Madrid,” and that’s what they’re trying to achieve: the Duke life with a dash of salsa. From traveling in packs to recounting their adventures with Facebook albums, complete with internal monologue, this is Duke through and through. I have to laugh when I remember the night in Seville when all 49 of us entered the same bar and talked only amongst each other. Even the bilingual students are speaking English, and why not? To speak Spanish so well when everyone else does it so poorly is a little embarrassing. The nail that sticks up is the nail that gets hammered down.
For me, though, Duke in Madrid is an invitation to disappear into the country while still earning university credit. Every weekend, I’m taking a solo visit to a certain Spanish city or region. I speak more Spanish, meet more people, and have more freedom that way. I’d never planned or even taken a road trip before this semester, so I’ve learned some things the hard way, but on the whole, my experiences have been immensely rewarding. Here are the highlights of the last couple weeks.
Technically, I made this trip with the program, but I was already mentally separating myself from the others here. Here, I could relax and appreciate the details. I remember a common street which became beautiful in the night when it was submerged in golden light and a closed pawn shop whose wares were bathed in blue. I remember standing downwind from the Street of Spices so I could covertly bask in its beautiful saffron smell. I remember eating lunch next to the city fountain so I could feel the caress of its mist. I remember seeing and eating grenadines for the first time when I found shade beneath one of their trees in the middle of the afternoon. I remember the clouds that gathered ominously overhead for hours so they could release two fitful minutes of rain.
But what I remember most is the tranquility and the sadness of the Alhambra, the royal palace the Muslim kings built in the 13th century so they could insulate themselves from a world which by then brought only intrigue and bad tidings. In each room, there were new flowers, new designs on the walls, and new sets of shadows. In each garden, I could hear the soothing sound of running water. The apogee of the visit was our climb to the top of the military building’s watchtower. As I paced the battlements, I imagined myself in the place of the last king of the Moors in 1492, looking into the horizon of my beloved country and seeing Spanish soldiers surrounding him on every side. Since 711, his people had ruled some part of the country, and on his watch, they were losing it. How empty must he have felt, standing there with 781 years of history weighing on him and saying, “It’s over”? As a Christian, I’m glad it happened. As a human being, I felt a terrible sadness every minute I spent in the Alhambra after that, for the ghosts were speaking to me.
Afterwards, our bus traversed the well-worn route to Seville, through the heart of Andalucía, the southern region of Spain famous for its unique clothing, lusty gypsy women, and flamenco. Its vast dehydrated expanses are mind-boggling. I saw fields upon fields of olive trees that grew from the soil from which grass could not. I saw ranchers driving bulls and cows down dusty trails but not a single farmer in the fields. An especially impressive part of the Andalucía drive is the treacherous route from Madrid to Córdoba: sometimes, it is merely a pair of two-lane roads which wind around parallel mountain ranges with only a meager guardrail between one’s rightmost tires and the abyss. Other times, twenty feet of naked stone flank many of the roads on both sides, betraying that these passes were work of dynamite. Yet the drive is peaceful in a way American road trips cannot be: the only roadside billboards in this country are the 100×200 foot black wooden silhouettes of bulls which one passes every hundred miles or so. These advertisements for Spanish culture are subtler and nobler than any of the car dealers and television news teams that shout through our windshields every day.
I had already visited this town in the summer, but it did not bore me on the second trip. Rather, I felt comfortable from the moment I arrived. I was happy to see old friends such as the Alcázar (another Muslim palace), the glorious Cathedral, and the countless small, winding streets. (To traverse Seville, you don’t pick a street: you pick a general direction.) Alas, the orange trees were not blooming this time, so my Duke friends could not see the streets as they are meant to be: laden with citrus.
Yet the best leg of this visit was not any of the famous sites: rather, it was a visit that I paid with a few ladies to a flamenco bar on the other side of the water. From the moment we walked in, I could tell we weren’t welcome. The place was packed with middle-aged Spaniards who had some to enjoy some homemade flamenco performed by their friends: a guitarist, a rhythmist (clapping and foot-stomping and shouted encouragements such as “Vale, vale” to the performers), and an older couple, who, judging from the photographs on the wall, had been running the establishment for decades. When we four Americans entered, we received suspicious stares. As all Spaniards know, and as a young Sevillan had told us earlier in the night, groups Americans are loud drunkards who immediately change the atmosphere anywhere they go. So we stayed quiet and ordered drinks, and eventually, we were forgotten.
We enjoyed at least two dozen local tunes, almost all of which were about tortured love. Though the performers couldn’t move or sing like they once did, their passion for the music and for each other was still palpable. The biggest surprise of all came at the end, when all the lights were extinguished save a solitary candle below a statuette of the Virgin Mary on the back mantle. The three male performers turned and gave three songs to Our Lady. Then the bar closed for the night, but not before I met three nice Midwestern girls who had happened into the same bar. I left my Duke friends behind and talked to them, and one in particular, until la madrugada (the gloaming), after which I skipped and danced down the streets and across the river to my hotel, at which I conversed with the hotelier about his life, in his language, for half an hour.
After Seville, we had free reign to go wherever we wanted. Most of the group chose Marbella, a cosmopolitan beach town similar to, say, Cancun. Others, myself included, struck out for Cádiz, an island city which the Phoenicians founded three thousand years ago. I only saw the other Dukies in passing because I took this trip alone.
Cádiz is the hometown of Ignacio, the director of our last trip. He is a good spiritual adviser and a great friend, so I was determined to see the place he loved so much. I especially wanted to stand on the city ramparts and watch the moonlight over the water, for this was a subject of one of Ignacio’s favorite songs. So resolute was I that I bought my train tickets the day we left for Andalucía, though I didn’t find a hostel until the day before I arrived after calling two dozen.
It seemed like all the nations of the world were in town that weekend. There was Raúl, an 18-year old native whose family owned my hostel. When I remarked that he had the same name as Spain’s most famous soccer player, he got upset. (His athletic namesake is getting older, and he’s suffered many disappointments in the last few years, so his fickle fans are turning on him.) When he wasn’t changing the sheets, Raúl spent his time cooing over and touching his German girlfriend, who had moved to Spain to study flamenco guitar and seemed surprised but flattered by the attention. Campbell, a middle-aged Australian man, was spending en route from Lisbon to Switzerland along the Spanish coastline. He was especially excited about visiting Gibraltar, still a British territory, where he could speak his native language. Basil was a Romanian street accordion player who lived in the hostel when he wasn’t making road trips to play in other cities. He made 35 euro a day, spent 10 euro on his room and some of the rest on food, and shipped the remainder across Europe to his family. Poor as he was, he still offered to share his handle of beer with me, which I accepted.
That night, I enjoyed the town’s 25th annual flamenco singing contest. There I befriended Bast, a Swiss student who was trying to learn Spanish, himself. He told me that in Switzerland, getting a woman to hook up with you is much more complicated than it is in America. The final friend I made in Cádiz was a Spanish history student, about 30 years old by my reckoning, named Alfredo. We shared dinner and ice cream. Because he was bald and had a very intense look on his face, and because he randomly introduced himself to me while I was alone on the beach at night, I was afraid for the first 30 or 45 minutes of our conversation that he was going to kidnap me, rob me, or rape me, but I decided I could win a fight with him, and now, we’re pals. I can’t say that about the three teens who accosted me one night and continuously offered me drugs and joshed with me in their incomprehensible southern accent. So far, I love my South American peers, but I can’t say the same about young Spaniards.
In Cádiz, as in Granada, I saw many beautiful things. My camera malfunctioned on this trip, though, so I can only show them to you with my song. I did sit on the ramparts and watch the moon over the water, but what struck me more about nighttime there was the beautiful relationship between electric light and water. I must have watched the ocean dance under the street lamps for hours, and night on the beach was even more magical. It was low tide, and the pools of water reflected and distorted the traffic lights above them such that I saw green, yellow, red, and white streaks a hundred feet long on the sands. As people walked across the water, I saw their perfect mirror images moving in the water below. I could see hundreds of rivulets of water running back into the ocean at one glance, a sight more exciting than any of the explosions I’ve witnessed on the movie screens. I could see three of my shadows at once, and when I extended my arms, it was like seeing the three men hanging on the cross at Calvary. There was the constant spinning motion of the lighthouse, searching for ships, and finally I noticed the sound of the waves, which never stops and never will. That night was a spiritual experience with every moment bringing a new miracle.
Alfredo suggested that I take a weekend to visit Extremadura, the poor western region of Spain, and after Nuria, our current program director, told me that was her home region and drew me maps of places to go, I had to do so. (The other students who traveled that weekend went to a little town in the Netherlands which is popular among American youth for some reason.) My voyage to Extremadura was fraught with complications, but each one simply led to new adventures.
After spending hours grappling with complicated bus schedules, rigid train rules, and unfortunate subway breakdowns, I finally left Madrid last Friday, on my 3rd ticket out, at the 3rd station I visited, having inverted my travel plans three or four times. At this point, still numb from all the misfortune which had befallen me, my luck turned for the better: a group of Dukies participating in NYU’s Madrid program was also in that station, as was my Boston University, so we chatted for a while. On my bus, I sat next to a cute Spanish engineering student named Lourdes. We talked for an hour or so, though I get the feeling I was more excited about speaking her language than she was because she kept nodding off to sleep.
I made my exit at a hamlet named Trujillo. I ate lunch at a restaurant called the Mesón La Troya, which styled itself as the last old-school traveler’s restaurant in the country. The food was plentiful and the price amazing. For 15 euro, I received: a bottle of water, a bottle of Sprite, a bottle of red wine, a loaf of bread, a large bowl of salad, a Spanish tortilla, six slices of Iberian sausage, gazpacho (cold tomato soup, first course, choice of 7), beef (main course, choice of 7), and a tart (choice of 5 desserts). That’s hospitality! I didn’t have to eat again for 24 hours.
Next, I toured the steadfastly medieval historical section. Never have I visited a city that was so peaceful. I had a plateau overlooking the countryside all to myself for twenty minutes. All I could hear were the wind, the calm rush of passing cars (which sounds a lot like wind itself), and a pack of dogs which set to barking now and again. The rock walls used by feudal farmers to mark their territory so long ago coursed across the landscape like veins. Ancient, abandoned houses dotted the landscape just as they do all over Extremadura. When I looked at the castle turrets all around me, or when I ducked through abandoned doorways into rocks and trees in full autumnal splendor, I felt like I was inside one of the Final Fantasy games I played in my youth. Here I was in medieval Spain, among castles, rocks, ponds, and plains traversed from time immemorial, living the dream.
Alas, misadventure raised its ugly head again. I took a misstep descending the stairs in an ancient cathedral bell tower and sprained my ankle so badly I’m still feeling it today. (I blame my host mother for putting too much food in my backpack and myself for bringing too many books.) I dragged myself a half-mile back to the bus station, bought a ticket to Cáceres, the regional capital, from which I was due to return home by train the next day, canceled my plans to go hiking in the valley.
A sprained ankle is a low-pain, high-pity kind of injury. A limping man looks more pathetic than a man in a wheelchair because the cause of the first man’s condition is so painfully obvious. So, I was feeling especially vulnerable on this evening, and as a result I could open up and make lots of friends. On my bus to the capital, I sat next to a pretty young lawyer who laughed a lot. I love talking to people with cheerful laughter (not to mention pretty women), so we made the hour pass quickly. I met two ladies from Chile who were taking a vacation from their husbands and grown children in the old country. They gave me their addresses and offered to shelter me if I ever visit Santiago. A Spanish lady who talked too fast even for the Chileans took me to the hospital. She kept asking me what I would have done without her so I could respond “I don’t know; thank you so much.” At the hospital, I met many spinsters who were hanging out there with various complaints. “How unfortunate to get injured on a vacation,” they told me. “Well, it’s just another adventure,” said I, which made them laugh and repeat the line to each other for the next twenty seconds. After my ankle was wrapped, I even came back to the emergency room (which runs just as slowly as the US version, if not worse) and said goodbye to them. I’ve learned that “I’m an American student” is a sufficient conversation starter for anyone who’s older than I am.
Cáceres is renowned in Spain for the way it lights its historical district at night, so I simply had to stumble out to see it. It was worth the effort, for it was an entire district which looked like the golden street in Granada. The place which looked decrepit by day was timeless by night. This time, it was a set of trees which shone ethereal green under electric lights, a color not even the sun could have given them.
“It’s like stepping back into another century,” said José, the night worker of my hostel, of Cáceres. Indeed it is like that, as is all of Spain, but thanks to our inventions, we can see the beauty more easily than our ancestors ever could…if we would take the time to do it. With the conveniences, though, come noise and distraction. I know that I pump so much media into my head and rush from place to place so much that I can’t stop and see the what’s happening right next to me. On my trips, though, when I cut off from the world, I could see it more clearly. When I was alone, I was meeting people. Because I’ve always done the things that “good kids” did, like do my homework and go to church, I wondered if I was either independent or an adventurer. Here, I am both.