Published: February 11th 2009February 11th 2009
Narrow, winding streets of cobblestone, breathtaking cathedral architecture and footsteps softly echoing off the stained glass, sizzling tapas and red wine, accordion music in bustling plazas speckled with orange trees. If Spain can be labeled at all, it can only be called a dream.
The night before arrival in Cadiz, the entire ship was buzzing with excitement. People were running around packing, finalizing travel plans, filling out paperwork, and it was generally sinking in that rather than simply sailing forever as it had begun to seem, we would actually be visiting countries on this journey. I bounded up and down the stairs between my room and the 6th floor hangout spot and I felt this sort of deep, peaceful anticipation. I had essentially no plan, no idea what would happen, and utter peace with this fact. I loved that while nearly everyone else had a detailed itinerary planned out, all I knew is that I would be leaving the ship the next morning and returning at some point roughly four days later. I was also planning to meet up with my British lover Kamila, who was scheduled to fly into Málaga from England the night before and take a bus into Cadiz. They asked everyone venturing separate from SAS to fill out an independent travel form; when I told them I didn’t exactly have detailed plans they asked me to just write down as much information as I could. Name: ok. ID number and cabin: got it. Date leaving: no problem—tomorrow, 1/26. Date returning: well... unknown. Name of lodging in country: unknown. People traveling with: (you don’t know her). Travel itinerary: unknown. Maybe leaving Cadiz, maybe not. Contact #: (no phone). I also subsequently discovered that my watch was entirely wrong and that tomorrow was not at all the 26th, it was the 28th.
It’s striking the extent to which my generation relies on technology to facilitate everyday social interaction. I became acutely aware of this when I boarded the ship two weeks ago and I turned my phone off and lost readily available access to facebook. It becomes nearly impossible to meet up with someone except by chance without actually planning that meeting face to face at the close of a previous rendezvous. The reason I bring this up is because when I walked down the ramp off the ship, it occurred to me that I had no idea where, when, or how I was going to find Kamila. Approximately my first two hours in Spain were spent wandering through the meandering alleyways of Cadiz, searching fruitlessly for an internet café, hoping I would be able to find a message from her telling me where to meet. Finally, I decided to put to use the six years of Spanish language instruction with which my formal education had supplied me, and I asked a man for directions in what I thought was more or less intelligible Spanish.
“Señor, do you know if there is an Internet café around here?” ¬¬
“Yes, well, an internet café.”
“Oh, yes, of course! For breakfast?”
This was but the first of a bewildering series of miscommunications that would befall me throughout the next four days. I eventually managed to convey to this man what I was looking for and he excitedly told me to follow him. After an alarmingly excessive amount of time traipsing through identically unidentifiable streets, we arrived at a junction. He had to go the other way, but the café was just down the street, he told me.
The café was not just down the street.
An hour later I somehow blundered my way back to the center of town, found an ATM and an internet café, and discovered a facebook message from Kamila telling me to meet her at a restaurant called La Marina, just by the City Hall.
Once, my uncle and his family drove down from New Jersey to visit us just outside Washington, D.C. I-95 turns into I-495, and the exit to reach our house is about 5 miles after the junction. Now, this highway circles the entire way around the capital city, and in a very unfortunate though retrospectively humorous navigational miscalculation, my uncle ended up heading the wrong direction on the road and spent about four hours driving the entire distance around the interstate to an exit that should have taken five minutes to reach. This is precisely how I arrived at La Marina. After traversing the majority of the city once again, I arrived at the restaurant, from which I could see the internet café sitting about one block away.
And, needless to say, Kamila was nowhere to be seen.
So I trooped back to the internet café (via the direct route, not my previous one) and found another message waiting, informing me that the establishment said something about a pastelería on the front. Apparently, two restaurants in Cadiz were, conveniently, both called La Marina.
Long story short, I finally found her. It had been almost 6 months since we’d seen each other but we fell into easy conversation, laughing about our individual travel mishaps and relieved to have finally found each other. I dropped off my bag at her hostel and we wandered through the intricate array of streets until we emerged from the maze at the most beautiful place I visited in Cadiz. A road stretched along the top of a cliff, bordered by a waist high wall that stood overlooking the ocean 40 feet below as the waves crashed against massive concrete blocks strewn along the base of the wall. The coast stretched away into the distance, where the rocky wall gave way to a sloping path down to a sandy beach speckled with shells and colorful stones. We walked barefoot through the sand for a long time, dodging waves and breathing in the salty air. After a late lunch back in the city, whose highlight was my first pitcher of sangría (a surprisingly delicious and ingeniously simple concoction that I have every intention of brewing at home), we returned to the coast to watch the sunset. I collected sand and small bits of seashells for my sand-from-around-the-world collection, and we clambered across rocks until we found a spot from which we sat and watched the sea in silence. As darkness crept across the cloudy sky, lights began to glow in the city above and a lighthouse switched on, flinging beams of light to my eyes and out to sea. Eventually, we faced a dilemma: did we want to find tapas, or go to, say, Seville?
It was in this way that we ended up on a night train rumbling towards the city of Sevilla. The ride would have been quite pleasant except that every time the train made a stop, the loudspeakers would emit a horrific unjustifiable screeching noise evidently designed to brutally antagonize passengers.
We stepped off the train, wandered through a deserted station, and enlisted the aid of a taxi driver who delivered us to Santa Catalina, a hostel in the center of town. On the street ten minutes later, we tried unsuccessfully to get a group of Spanish women to recommend a tapas bar and were intercepted by a seasoned American woman who led us to a restaurant that she said was the best in Seville. She wasn’t lying; the food was absolutely exceptional. We devoured a dish of tenderloin and onions, something called potatoes al bravo, and a fusion of chicken and bacon. I was also introduced for the first time to a delicious pink scoop that Kamila explained was known as pâté, which in my gastronomically cultured genius I referred to then and ever after as ice cream duck. We ordered a second bottle and the laughter and wine flowed freely. We sat there eating utterly delicious food, drinking exquisite wine, and generally wondering how we had gotten ourselves into such an incredible situation. It was one of the best nights I’d had in a long, long time.
The unfortunate part about that night was that when we finished eating and drinking and were about to leave, we discovered that Kamila’s handbag was no longer there. Somebody had taken it, and now everything that was in it—passport, wallet, cash, credit cards, iPod, camera, cell phone, sketchbook—was gone. The next morning, after we went to the police station and got a report that they assured us would allow her to fly home passport-less, we did the only sensible thing to do at that point: went for coffee. We made a vow to consume, for our entire time in Spain, nothing but tapas, sangria, red wine, and coffee. We spent the morning wandering through the streets of Seville in wonder, taking in the stunning atmospheric contrast of the city. The buildings lining the narrow alleyways were crafted in a uniquely beautiful Spanish style. The elegant architecture was offset by the highly developed ground level graffiti culture. The cobblestone was dappled with fallen oranges, and each winding street eventually opened up into a plaza adorned with orange trees and elegant lampposts backset by jutting cathedral towers.
After a delicious lunch of…tapas, of course, we wandered into a pastelería displaying an exquisite selection of beautifully crafted desserts and pastries. We ordered a small cylindrical tower composed of four layers of chocolate mousse and a round crumbling shell of raspberry cheesecake. We sat outside in the cool afternoon, eating the desserts and drinking coffee, listening to the beautiful music of street accordion players and once again marveling at the situation in which we had somehow come to be.
Strangely, this time, which felt like an eternity, only lasted for several days, but we quickly fell into a daily routine of waking up, coffee, exploring on foot, tapas, dessert, sangria, tapas and wine, dessert, coffee.
One evening we sat in a coffee shop sipping Americanos and smoking Spanish cigarettes. “We’re at the most fundamental, basic levels of pleasure right now,” I mentioned with deep contentment.
“You mean the two most addictive substances known to humanity?”
If there is one thing we did more than drink coffee, though, it was laugh. One thing I love about this girl is that we share more laughter than I have with anyone I’ve ever known. They say the average person laughs about 8 times a day. We agreed that we each surpassed that estimate approximately every five minutes. I commented on this, and she simply called it what it was: mutual happiness.
The language barrier I encountered in Spain was an interesting phenomenon. Despite the years of Spanish I’d taken throughout school, I was in no way prepared for the unfamiliar accents and impossible speed at which Spaniards communicated. I would consistently approach people on the street and request directions in slow, tentative Spanish, which for some reason locals would take to mean that I was fluent in the language, and they would invariably respond in rapid, utterly unintelligible slurs of speech.
Nonetheless, I have to state that my Spanish was certainly better than the English of whichever unqualified deuce they allowed to roam Seville and provide horrific menu translations for restaurants. In one location, the unintelligible menu included such translated dishes as, and I swear these are direct quotes, “potatoes to the brave one”, “fried spawns” and “landfill of prawns”, and my favorite, “turned around of you live with jamon”. And “salad of crabs”.
We found one sweet coffee shop called Café India. The coffee throughout Spain was consistently delicious, and here we took our cups upstairs to an old fashioned feeling room, empty except for a cluster of dusty wooden tables and chairs, with windows looking out over the street corner below. After our ritual caffeine infusion we made our way to the famous Cathedral of Seville, which probably also has an actual name that I cannot recall at the moment. Words cannot describe this absolutely cavernous feat of architecture. Insanely intricate carvings creeping up the walls and across the ceilings, elaborate tapestries, ornate furniture, treasure room with priceless artifacts, organ pipes stretching dozens of feet to the ceiling, light streaming in through stunning stained glass pieces high above. We climbed 35 stories by ramp to the top of the tower for a spectacular panoramic view of the entire city of Seville.
Later on, after our typical afternoon punctuated by various food and beverage, we made our way back to a square we had passed earlier that we thought would look particularly beautiful at night. We sat outside at a table beneath an orange tree, across from a side of the cathedral that was illuminated by four lampposts in the center of the square. As we sat there musing about the apparent practical joke of Spanish restaurant owners to see how long they could get away with ignoring foreign patrons, we watched a man walk by carrying a toddler on his shoulder, pretending to viciously bite the kid’s leg as the little guy shrieked with laughter and flung his arms around. It was funny enough as it was, but then as he swung his arms around the kid accidentally jabbed the man in the eye, who froze, started yelling at the kid, presumably about how it felt to be poked in the eye, and carried him away scowling.
At first we had planned to only drink coffee and to move elsewhere for tapas, but we realized we would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful spot. Finally the waiter, who lacked both attentiveness and evidently a certain degree of wit, poked his head back outside and I flagged him down. “Can we place an order? We want to get food as well.”
“Oh, you want to eat?”
“Here??” No, I just thought I should let you know.
Some time later, after moving inside when it started raining, we had downed most of a pitcher of sangria and had finished both tapas we ordered. Now, it had become a tradition to order several dishes and then ask for a surprise as well. This strategy was highly successful most but not all of the time. When I finally caught the waiter’s attention, I made this request, and, as before, his response did not instill in me a great sense of confidence.
“A surprise!?” he giggled inappropriately and walked away.
Five minutes later he brought out a dish that was identical to one we had just eaten.
Though to his credit, I suppose no other dish would have been more surprising. We wandered around after the meal looking for a coffee shop, but the rain was coming down and it had gotten chilly and windy, so we just ended up back at Café India. We sat there drinking our coffees next to a window downstairs, gazing out into the rainy evening as soft Spanish coffee shop music played in the background.
We caught a train back to Cadiz the next morning and spent the day walking around the city. We bought a bus ticket and hunted for an ATM so I could lend Kamila money to get home, and we ate a lunch of tapas that included our other unsuccessful surprise, a bowl of rice with a large and slimy tentacle protruding from it. We’d been thinking about ice cream for the last couple days, and on our way back to the beach, we popped into an shop with an impressive-looking selection (though Kamila thoughtfully pointed out to me that they were all out of duck). We took our cones to the spot overlooking the rocky cliff and I devoured the ice cream until white chocolate and pistachio blended in my stomach with the heaviness induced by the impending goodbye.
As we sat there thinking of the funnier moments from the past few days, suddenly three girls sporting bright Semester At Sea sweatshirts ran up to us in a panic.
“CAN WE GET A TAXI!?” the most disheveled of the group asked me frantically.
I didn’t know quite how to respond to this outburst. “Well, its alright with me…”
She began to blurt something wild and incoherent. “Ok, ok, calm down…where are you guys trying to get to?” I asked.
“TO THE SHIP! ARENT YOU GOING???”
I glanced at my watched. We still had a good four hours until we had to be back. “Well, “ I started as calmly as possible, “we really have plenty of time to be back, and if you want I can give you directions, its just about 5 minute walk that way.”
“OK, THERE IS NO WAY THAT’S HAPPENING.”
“CAN WE JUST HAIL A CAB HERE?!”
And the next moment they were gone. I watched them stumble wildly to the edge of the road and hover momentarily on the curb like penguins afraid to leap from a cliff into the water, and after trying to hail several vehicles that were patently not taxis, they tumbled into a cab and I never saw them again.
Kamila and I said goodbye down on the sand. There’s not much I can say about it; it was everything you can imagine it must be like to part with someone who you’ve just spent four solid days with, not knowing how long it would be before meeting again. We stood there down next to the ocean together, and I didn’t know what to do. There were no words to be said. I finally turned and began to walk along the beach away from her. I popped in my earphones and the music blended with the crashing waves to my left. Beyond the sand, halfway up the ramp back to the city, I turned back and stood there for a moment watching her tiny form walking away, reflected in the waves that washed up over the sand beside her. I stood there and the past four days rushed through me, each moment of laughter, each cup of coffee, and I felt simultaneously so full and so empty. Her shape grew smaller and smaller until I could no longer distinguish her from the other specks on the beach. I turned around and started walking back to the journey.