Can’t sleep – Timeline from a Hostel

I had a fever a few weeks ago. Too many nights without sleep in Barcelona. Wide awake and staring at the bunk bed above me, I was sure of only one thing: The sleeping pill I took two hours ago had peaked and failed to deliver some Z’s. Then it started – the sound was coming from a bed to my my left. The source of the noise stumbled into the room five minutes ago, pushing the limits of his mattress springs by gracelessly slumping over.

60 days into my trip, I’ve stayed at my fair share of hostels. Character, location, interior, price, cleanliness – no two are the same, except for one constant: Someone is usually passed out drunk and snoring loudly.

It’s a reality of traveling that I’ve grown used to. But on this particular night – burning up and having a difficult time nodding off – I couldn’t ignore the deep reverberating escaping from his throat. A timeline of my thoughts:

3:15 – Hmm, finally feeling tired. Ah, what’s that? Snoring. OK, not gonna stop me from falling asleep. No worries.

3:17 – That’s getting pretty loud. That guy might have health problems. May need a priest to perform an exorcism.

3:25 – Grabbing the I-Pod. Gonna slip on my noise-canceling headphones. Should help.  At least his bed isn’t moving back and forth to accompanying moans like in Bruges.

3:29 – Head-phones are almost full volume. Yet I can still hear  him pretty clearly somehow. Kinda ruining this song. Try and tune it out. The snoring, not the music.

3:41 – If that priest does come, might need some holy water to cool me down. My temperature is definitely going up.

3:50 – Urge to kill rising.

3:55 – AHHH DOESN’T HE KNOW I’M LISTENING TO BLOOD ON THE TRACKS? THIS ALBUM IS TOO GOOD TO BE INTERRUPTED BY HIS UNEVEN BREATHING. I GIVE UP, THERE’S NO HOPE OF DROWNING HIM OUT. HOW CAN A HUMAN WITH AN OBSTRUCTED THROAT PASSAGEWAY POSSIBLY MAKE NOISES THAT LOUD?

4:11 – OK, lost my cool – it’s alright. Just sleep on the train tomorrow. Happy thoughts. Scoring waves. Bob Barker. Ninja Turtles. I got this.

4:16 – Seriously? Now the guy above me is snoring. One snore peaks while the other trails off. It’s both frustrating and kind of weirdly complimentary. It’s like hearing two guitars play off of each other. The Keith Richards and Mick Taylor of sleeping.

4:19 – Urge to kill rising… rising.

4:30 – Maybe I’ll try one of those counting games to bore myself to sleep? 100. 99. 98…

4:32 – Hmm, didn’t work. Now in German? Einhundert.  Neunundneunzig. Achtundneunzig…

4:34 – The sound stopped, from both directions! Victory! Unroll the streamers. Time to ride a fluffy cloud to dreamland. Finally I can get to sle…

4:34 –  Uggh. Premature mission accomplished. There goes the first guy again… and now the second.Wonderful.

4:40 – Need some other way to distract my brain. I’ll try and think about all the things I have to do when I get back from my whirlwind tour around Europe. Shuffling resumes, straightening ties, interviews, shaking hands, the infinite number of paths I could take and places I could end up in the next six months. *brain explodes and mind goes blank from overabundance of thoughts*

4:41 …

4:42 ..

4: 43 .

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Lisbon – Benefica!

Lisbon was a bit out of the way, but I kept hearing what a special city it is, so I hopped on a red-eye train from Madrid.

My first impression of the city: Lots of hills and old architecture washed in light blues, pinks and yellows. The streets were a maze, but I could certainly think of worse places to get lost (yeah, that’s a recycled Facebook status for anyone keeping score – can’t always write things of stunning originality).

Skating around the slippery cobblestone roads in my flip-flops, I wasn’t sure how people get anything done in Lisbon. Thanks to lazy, sunny skies and a constant breeze from the ocean, my only real motivation was to plant myself on a bench overlooking the city and enjoy the sights. Felt like I’d just been injected with some kind of drug that made me totally relaxed and complacent, and couldn’t help but think “oh, so this is what being addicted to opium is like – hm, well that’s nice.”

My hostel was just as easy-going. Bean-bag chairs scattered around and an old 1950’s radio playing jazz records, it was a welcome change from some of the more hectic places I’ve stayed.

Bearing a resemblance to Vin Diesel, one of the guys I met in the hostel had been traveling the globe and could make a strong case for The Most Interesting Man in the World.

First piece of evidence: According to him, any tourist can rent a rocket launcher and shoot at cows in Vietnam. Next, he was just about to do the running of the bulls in Spain while wearing a “Where’s Waldo?” costume. If that’s not enough, Vin Diesel look-alike was recently kidnapped and held for three days in Egypt for apparently no reason. He was released without explanation. These are only a few stories. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the face of Dos Equis’ advertising campaign in the future. If nothing else, he’s been immortalized on a blog that’s received nearly 50 hits to date.

Met other memorable travelers, including a guy from Alabama, a German girl from Munich and a group of 17 Scottish people.

The next day, Alabama, The Most Interesting Man in the World and I hiked to the top of a nearby Moorish castle dating back to the 900’s. Enjoying a panoramic view of the city, I settled back into my too-content-to-move daze. Once I snapped out of it, I helped The Most Interesting Man in the World with his “Where’s Waldo?” project by taking a few pictures. Not only is he doing the running of the bulls in Waldo’s trademark red and white, but there are heeps of pictures of him on Facebook wearing the costume around the globe (favorite would have to be him packed into a crowded Asian subway).

Leaving the castle and descending back down the winding streets, we found a cafe that served a special kind of pork sandwich. Considered the local “working man’s sandwich,” I was hit with a guilty feeling as soon as I took my first bite. Since I’ve been living the dream for several months, I’ve been so far removed from anything that could be considered real, actual work.

Heard more stories from The Most Interesting Man in the World. One smaller one I thought was cool: If you ever find yourself wanting to cross a busy street with an uninterrupted stream of traffic in southeast Asia (they ignore all traffic signals), walk at a steady pace and don’t look in either direction. This seem counterintuitive, but looking either left or right will likely make you slow down or speed up, making you less predictable for approaching drivers. However, the same pace guarantees traffic can swerve around you with ease. Reminded me of that Greek myth Orpheus – the tale where a man goes to Hades to find his dead wife. Hades agrees to let him leave with his wife as long as he doesn’t look back in her direction – unfortunately he gives into temptation.

Sketchy figures don’t have to walk far to find temptation in Lisbon. I don’t partake, but lots of harder drugs have been decriminalized.  I know many people are skeptical, but from what I’ve read, treating drugs as a public-health issue rather than a criminal problem has paid massive dividends in the form of less crime and lower addiction rates.

But there is a major drawback: Visitors will often hear offers of “cocaine, hash, marijuana” in many touristy areas. It got to be really annoying after a few days, so Alabama and I joked about a few solutions. He proposed blowing a rape whistle every time they approached. I said we should respond with the Simon and Garfunkel song title “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” I’ll out hippy them yet.

The next day, Alabama and I went in search of surf.  Lisbon is technically on a peninsula and it isn’t exposed to the Atlantic’s storms, meaning the closest beaches for catching waves are 30 to 45 minutes away by train. Unfortunately, the waves at the first beach we visited were glassy, yet small. The next beach was beautiful and had waves, but was too windy. For the anyone who is confused by the variation in conditions, the curving coastline is the culprit. Really small or really windy, decided not to take either poison and visit a really cool place – Sintra.

An old palace and an even older castle can be found atop a forested mountain hugging the coastline. It’s a worthy climb for for those with the endurance – or simply take a bus, which we regrettably discovered when we reached the top. But in retrospect, I’m happy we opted to make the trek instead of using public transportation. Pushing further and further into the trees as we climbed upward, I felt like we were part of some past wrapped in the outside present.

Later that night we enjoyed a European tradition: drinking on the streets.

Back in the U.S. several months ago, I asked my German friend who was on exchange what he missed most about home. He didn’t answer family or friends. No, he answered publicly consuming alcohol. I now understand why.

Festive people with glass bottles in hand poured out of  more than a dozen streets. Sharing stories and laughing, it was an atmosphere that just can’t be replicated in a bar – and Lisbon has no shortage of cool bars.

There’s much more to say about Lisbon, but this post is already starting to resemble a novel. Among the other highlights: Listening to a local music style called Fado in funky bars splashed with color, teaching some Canadians I befriended how to surf and reading historical accounts of a large earthquake that destroyed the city in the mid-1700s. Recorded in Lisbon several years ago, the soundtrack to these experiences was a song recorded by one of my favorite musicians  – I can feel the city’s influence in the melody – sunny and warm.

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Standing on the Dividing Line: 40 Days Gone, 40 to Go

Today I was thinking I might need some kind of rehabilitation program to re-enter the real world when I get back to San Diego. Something along the lines of deep-breathing exercises in the fetal position followed by hourly chants of  “today I’m not going to meet people from around the world, visit historic museums/sights and top the day off by drinking exotic beers that are probably superior to their American counterparts while mingling with more international individuals. No, I will put my head down and produce things of economic value to feed the American economy.”  Feel free to recommend some more calming affirmations to ease the transition.

If that doesn’t work, may need to rig my possessions to register pattern-changing shocks. For example, visiting websites with European train schedules or weather forecasts for places outside California would be met with a strong jolt from my computer. Touching a jar of Nutella would result in volts generally reserved for tranquilizing large animals.

Since being a tourist is all I know, don’t be surprised if I visit Sea World on a daily basis and act like a total zonie in Pacific Beach those first few weeks home. I’m looking rather tan and healthy at the moment, but my complexion will probably be back to pasty goodness in a month, so I’m halfway there. Now I just need to un-learn surfing and clog up the beach by hauling around one of those blue, eight-foot foam boards.

Seriously, this has been a great trip filled with experiences I know I’ll look back on with rose-colored nostalgia. Lots of interesting people and places, many of which you have heard about or will hear about on this blog.

Some days have been tinged by doses of less-than-upbeat introspection, but I think that’s necessary and healthy. After all, there are quite a few changes in my life that I’m trying to wrap my mind around at the moment. If countless travel memoirs are to be believed, only lost souls and people figuring out “what it all means” are allowed in Europe. Have to do my part to fit the bill once in a while. Here’s to the next 40 days.

Places I’ve visited so far: London – Paris – Bruges – Amsterdam – Cologne – Seignosee – Madrid – Lisbon – Barcelona

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Strange Days Surfing with ´Zee Germans in France

I couldn´t process the scene that was taking place in front of me. Eyes closed with a scrunched up face and completely silent, my German friend Robin laid face up on our white deck table outside of our bungalow at two a.m. As though bound by invisible chains, he barely moved. People wielding beer bottles and shaving razors encircled him. A few of the people showed up from nearby bungalows dressed in monkey costumes, making loud ¨ooohooo¨ noises. They poured beer on him for lubrication, drawing short lines with their blades down the left-hand side of his body. Those who weren´t running a razor over Robin´s skin were laughing and making drunken announcements into a block rocker’s microphone. After 30 or 40 strange minutes, Robin arose from the table, half of his body freshly shaven.

There was a  seemingly simple reason 50 percent of Robin’s beard, chest, arms and legs looked like a prepubescent boy: He bet he wouldn´t lose a game of beer pong – a sport he learned studying abroad in San Diego and wanted to export to Europe. Unfortunately his aim was as bad as the stakes.

But stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I´m at a loss to explain how all these bizarre, separate elements came together. What magical powers in the universe, what complicated forces of cause-and-effect, what god´s of beer pong lead random people in monkey gear to take a razor to my friend at 2 a.m.?  This wasn´t an isolated moment. Things seemed to defy explanation from the beginning when Robin, a few of his friends and I drove to the southwest of France in a van for the German Surf Championship. A week I learned to embrace the unexplained and unpredictable.

First indication of bizarro world: I got a tan. Even though I surf quite a bit, I have a perpetually pasty complexion, mainly thanks to my wetsuit and a northern European heritage that apparently refused to procreate with anyone whose skin could withstand more than 10 minutes of sun exposure without spontaneously combusting. Due to plenty of time at the beach, I’m happy to say my skin, especially my chest, no longer belongs to the paler shades of white category. One week later, I’m trying to maintain my tan, but have a feeling I’ll be back to my transparent, blinding white self soon.

A country without any well-known surf spots, the fact that Germany has a surf championship was another sign I was in some kind of alternate universe. More surprisingly, the Germans actually know how to surf. I was expecting some kind of pity contest that was more novelty than competitive, like that movie Cool Runnings (wait, did the Jamaican bobsledders get a bronze medal in the end? Childhood memories are failing me, possibly making this the worst. metaphor. ever.). From my place on the beach, I watched surfers carve stylish lines in breezy conditions. Have to say it made me feel guilty for not being a better surfer since I have so many nearby breaks at my disposal back home.

In San Diego, part of my morning routine has always included pouring over surf forecasts. Before France, I did the same, yet models and buoys can only take you so far. I was excited, but based on the forecasts I saw, I wasn’t expecting the best waves. Also, similar to San Diego, small swells generally make summer the worst season for surfing. That’s how France started, but the surf was a well-shaped five fee three days in, and on my second to last day, I watched with amazement as the waves jumped from three feet in the morning to nine feet by the end of the day. Robin and I paddled out for a sunset session. The push and pull of close interval waves at a heavy beachbreak, the amount of swell in the water – it was a dogfight to reach the outside. Burning arms, I caught a lucky break mid-journey, following a sweeping current that spared me from duckdiving extra waves. Robin wasn’t so fortunate. When he reached the outside and joined fellow surfers in the lineup 10 minutes later, a series of four or five mountains approached on the horizon. A set had arrived, a series of waves as big as 10 to 11 feet.

I barely slipped under the first wave as it crested, before the dagger came down, dragging surfers with it to the beach and subjecting them to the underwater spin cycle treatment. After taking a few rides of my own through the washing machine, I finally caught a wave an hour later. It was an unconscious and weightless drop into a nice long right-breaking wave that maintained it’s steep face all the way to the shore. Walking back to the bungalow with a smile, I kept thinking about how weird it was summer waves could give me such an adrenaline rush. Looking at the sky, spirals of gold hued clouds in the sky as the sun went down.

To add to this otherworldliness, I was basically the Tolkien American in a sea of Germans. How to bridge the cultural gap? A. Rely on limited knowledge of German and body language and B. drink healthy amounts of Newcastle. Was not only more sociable, but in my mind, every drink took my closer to German fluency. Throw in a Hasselhoff reference here and there, and I had conversing with Germans down to a science. Nailed it.

Speaking of zee Germans, my German friends Florian and Sebastian,  who I also met back home just happened to be surfing in France as well. It was really good seeing them, even though it was only for a few nights.  Brought back good memories of a time when locals and international students all hung out together by my old house near SDSU. Really cool and simultaneously surreal running into them in France.

New friends included bungalow mates Lina, Philip, Robin’s twin brother, Tom and Jorg.

Her German accent colored by a stint studying in New Zealand, Lina was really down to earth. Philip was a good-natured kitesurfer who could usually be found making smartass announcements into his block rocker’s microphone. After a long night of partying that was too much for me, apparently he and Tom used the block rocker to wish some girls from Munich a good morning as the sun rose. Tom was always upbeat and hilarious. I won’t forget how he wore a revealing Borat-esque wetsuit with a fake mustache to get laughs at the beach one day. It was horrifying, yet I couldn’t look away. And there was Jorg, a cardboard box that we painted a face on. He protected our surfboards and bungalow from harm.

Other surf stories include a  pounding, board-breaking of a wave that reeled off a jetty. I was at loss to explain how we could find the spot 30 miles away from our bunaglow in an industrial part of town. But after a few days in the southwest of France, I learned to stop searching for reasons and just enjoy life, both in and out of the water.

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Greetings

I have to admit, I often blog. Most of what I write is day-to-day drivel type stuff that isn’t fit for public consumption. This blog will probably be much of the same, except it’s European backpacking drivel! The fact that I’ll be typing away in quant cafes and hostels during my 80-day journey makes this blog at least 65 percent more readable. No? Well, whateva – skip my ramblings and admire all the pretty colors in my pictures.

But keep reading if you want a more complete look at the life of a recent graduate turned happy vagabond. Promise I won’t write too much about “finding myself.” If I do, there’s a fair chance my computer and I have found a pub where Belgian or German beer is part of the afternoon happy hour. First stop: London.

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London Calling!

If you didn’t read that title in a British accent – preferably Russel Brand’s, then fail.

Before I left for London I came across a condition called post-travel depression in several travel books. Initially I laughed, mentally placing post-travel depression alongside ADD and other disorders that primarily exist to line the pockets of pharmaceutical company executives. No more.

17 days into my 80-day-trip, I’m addicted. I can see how post-travel depression could set in. Sitting in parks at night, walking on cobblestone bridges, clinking pints with new friends and learning all kinds of interesting history – it’s just too much fun. When the clock ticks down and the time comes for Europe to show me the door, I’m going to get down on my knees, beg for an extra month, and promise to be good – no more sleeping on beaches and streets ( haven’t slept on a street yet, but it’s practically inevitable).

London, however, didn’t start off so great. I arrived extremely jetlagged courtesy of a baby crying in my ears for like eight hours. Since I just graduated college, quit a long-time job and recently experienced other big changes I don’t care to mention, a chorus of “what-ifs” were also ringing through my head. What if I can’t find work when I get back? What if I didn’t pick the right major? What if British people are still angry about the revolutionary war and choose to get revenge by capping my yankee-ass? Sounded bloody likely to me.

Those first few days, my mood reflected London’s weather – sunny and confident one moment, cloudy, dark and unsure about pretty much everything the next. With all the fluctuations, I felt like a pregnant woman at times. Even wanted to verbally berate every male in sight and consume large amounts of ice cream. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the British seem hellbent on making their food as unappealing as possible. In my experience, warm beer dominates pubs and dishes are overpriced as well as overcooked.

Difficult to pinpoint when I exactly found my footing and my outlook improved for the better. It was a slow, subtle process encouraged by several factors including positive self-talk and meeting some really great people. Of the individuals I came across, a group of crazy locals who invited me to watch a rugby match with them stand out – which is sort of odd because the combination of their thick British accents and a steady stream of alcohol made it pretty much impossible to understand them. I was basically nodding my head for three hours to feign comprehension. Only the occasional word like “wanker” or “bloody” were recognizable.

One of the guys David asked me what I was doing in London by myself. Told him I quit my job to travel. Between his accent, alcohol and the noise associated with a close rugby match, it’s a miracle I managed to grasp his response: “mate, good for you – screw all them wankers who think you should just keep doing something you hate – you’re traveling, enjoy the hell out of it right now!”

Maybe I internalized his eloquent words – some of the few I understood that night. Or maybe it was hearing tales about Winston Churchill – a man who embodied what the British call “the stiff upper lip” – the idea that one should always make the best of whatever wrongs or uncertainties in life. For Churchill, virtue was proudly wearing angst as a battle scar and continuing to fight the good fight. Maybe it was a combination.

Regardless, things definitely got better from there.

On the upswing, the next day I went to several museums and something unexpected happened: I gained an appreciation for art. Well not so much the paintings from the 1400’s to the 1800’s – I mean how many portraits of rich people and religious figures can one person look at? I like how more modern painters turned to the common man and nature for inspiration. Favorites include the truly weird, dream-like paintings from famous impressionists.

Other highlights include a pub crawl in Soho, learning the true meaning of “being drawn and quartered,” taking obligatory pictures of Big Ben and visiting the Tower of London – where royalty and the jailed used to share a home.

Ah, but there’s so much to say about my next stop: Paris.

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