Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bad Times

The last you heard of me was mid-July, en route home for a much-needed vacation. Really, you hadn't heard much of me before that, either. The last true update came from the end of June, a lovely span of time for teaching, relaxation, exploration, and enjoyment of a Palencia summer just starting to show its most beautiful blossom.

Except that then it all went to hell.

There are very few travel blogs (or at least very few I've read) that address the darker side of travel. It makes sense, of course. Unpleasant travel experiences are negative enough the first time around for the people living through them-- why would a traveler want to subject him or herself, or his/her audience, to a review?

But bad experiences, and even bad streaks, are of course a very real part of traveling. Buses are delayed, plans fall through, weather changes for the worse, important items are stolen, sickness pounces. Hell, just off the top of my head, drawing from my own experiences I can think of, I've: dropped my camera in the English Channel off the coast of Cornwall, got dysentery in Nujiang (Yunnan) during my thesis research, accidentally offended the Muslim sensibilities of my Palestinian host in Jordan, showed up late at night in a tiny Normandy town in the pouring rain and no host in sight for more than an hour, and (most infamously) spent four hideously cramped, hot days shuttling around the hellish North Indian bus system, from one incorrect town to the next.

So: July 2012. I had been hired to work in a summer camp in Cantabria, in the Spanish northern interior, for the last two weeks of July. I decided to give up my Palencia apartment on the first of the month in order to use my rent money to travel. I planned a beach-and-culture vacation across Asturias, Cantabria, and Basque Country (Pais Vasco). I spent a desperate several days packing up my apartment and departed for Oviedo, where I had exactly one day to enjoy my new Asturian surroundings when the proverbial first shoe dropped: the director called me bright on Sunday morning, while I picked through antiques and cheap clothing at the market, and told me that the camp had been suddenly and unceremoniously cancelled. I found myself suddenly out 500 euros (more, really, given how much extra I'd paid for a flight home that coincided with the camp schedule) and homeless for the next month.

I spent the next day panicking, then decided to plow ahead with my couchsurfing adventure along the Cantabrian Sea/Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately, the sudden implosion of my summer plans was just a preview of the way things would go until my departure for the US. Just within the ensuing 2.5 weeks I suffered through bad weather (unseasonably cold and wet even for usually cold and wet Asturias), suddenly unavailable hotels or hosts, a brief bout with fleas or bedbugs in the hostels I shared with pilgrims on the northern Camino de Santiago, a sprained ankle, a stolen credit card, and general loneliness and increasing discouragement.

It was an incredibly stressful period that sometimes felt unending-- just when I was recovering from one physical or emotional setback, another seemed to be on the way. But despite all that the bright spots were intensely bright. I slipped in a peaceful beach weekend in tiny Luanco (just before I slipped again, this time on rain-slicked cobbles and suffered the aforementioned ankle injury.) I marveled at the stunning Llanes cliff-and-ocean vistas (before fog descended and obscured them completely.) On July 4, I purchased digestive cookies, chocolate, and a bag of the weirdly-chewy-pink-and-white creation that pass for a Spanish marshmallows and taught my couchsurfing host to make s'mores using tea light candles. I used some of my extra time in Basque Country to eat my weight in delicious Basque pintxos (incredibly intricate mini-meals) and hike an unbelievably scenic seaside monastery, balanced precariously on top of dramatic sea cliffs. I was determined to surmount my itching legs, lost money, illness, and anxiety. It got a lot easier to do that after one evening in particular, which changed my perspective on "the bad times" of travel.

I didn't mean to spend as long in Ribadesella as long as I eventually stayed. I'd traveled through with my parents during their Easter visit-- we'd wanted to visit the 25, 000 year old cave paintings there but, due to bad weather and timing miscalculations, missed our appointment. I had resolved to return, and return I did. But, as sometimes happens with nomadic travel, I seemed to be caught in some strange magnetic storm around the town, and I couldn't seem to leave. I saw the paintings (which were breathtaking, especially one particular 10, 000 year old horse's head that looked like it had been scrawled the day before), then went to the previously discussed July 4th celebration in a nearby town.  I came back, then left again to go to a cider festival (where it rained all day, I missed the major festivities due to train schedules, and my host had to suddenly cancel on me). Another return-- this time to attempt a canoe trip which was unpleasantly rained out. An ill-fated hostel misadventure later, I decided it was worth it to stay around for the town's Patron Saint celebrations.

I was feeling decidedly fed up, I'll admit it. The rain was unremitting, and I was disappointed about my cancelled canoeing trip and stressed about finding somewhere to stay in my next stop and how to stretch the money I had left to fill the time until my flight home. Tempted to pout in my hostel, I instead walked across the narrow bridge over the mouth of the river and joined in the festivities. The rain slowed to a trickle, and the statue of the Saint, Maria Magdalena, was carried out of its shrine on the shoulders of priests, follow by a line of solemn musicians playing an Asturian instrument heavily reminiscent of bagpipes.

Most patron saint festivals include a parade through town, but Ribadesella is a fishing port, and the citizens choose to honor their saint in their own way. I watched in the watery twilight as Maria Magdalena was placed carefully in a fishing boat, festooned with flags and flowers and filled with adoring locals. A second boat held the bagpipers, and the two led a solemn parade of at least 60 boats (pleasurecraft, fishing rigs, and local police/navy alike) out into the open ocean, where a bouquet of flowers was tossed into the water in honor of fishermen lost over the year.

Santa Maria Magdalena starts her voyage into the Cantabrian Sea outside Ribadesella

The maritime parade ended with a brief terrestrial procession to the saint's shrine, where the crowd paused to sing a hymn to her. The shrine was at the edge of the carnival portion of the festival, so the harmonies of voices raised in song mingled with the beeps and booms of the spinning tea cups and bumper cars, while the saint's halo was set aglow by the oranges and greens of neon lights from the Ferris wheel. I wiped the fog from my glasses and took a moment to appreciate this beautiful intermingling of old and new traditions, writ small in the few moments the Saint spent raised against the sky. A string of bad luck and a bad attitude couldn't take that away from me, and that knowledge carried me through the bad times to come, all the way back to the US.

You might ask why I've waited until now to tell you about this. It's mid-October now, and Maria Magdalena has been resting in her shrine for almost 3 months. In between, I spent almost seven weeks recharging my batteries and reconnecting with my family, friends, and beloved city, then returned to Spain for my second year on the Iberian peninsula.

Well, the Bad Times come in many forms-- that's the short answer to "Why now?" Of course I remember having a difficult time getting used to Palencia last year, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility that 8 months of subsequent happiness have colored those initial times a bit rosier than than they really were.

I'm living in Andalucia this year, in a small town called Linares--more on that soon--and I'll be honest with you: my first few weeks here have been pretty difficult. The language is spoken differently here, and everything is even newer and more overwhelming than I anticipated. New friends are hard to come by, the apartment hunting process was much more difficult than I had hoped, my new apartment is presenting several stubborn issues, and I am struggling with my expectations and hopes for this year and the D word (disappointment. More on that later, too.)

But last night one of my first Linares friends, a gym teacher at the elementary school where I am working, took me to a local "feria" (what patron saint festivals are called here in the south.) In a small, out-of-the-way plaza crowned by palm trees, an enthusiastic rock band pumped out covers by the likes of KISS and The Cranberries, while under a white tent neighbors drank beer and ate tapas together. The lead singer launched into an impressive version of "Zombie," and I watched grandmothers and grandfathers nod along in rhythm with a group of faux-bored teenagers perched on the fence off to the side. The tang of roasting meat and fresh beer floated on the breeze, and a motley crew of parents and children and twenty-somethings swayed with their hands in the air, caught up in the music.

For a minute I forgot my anxieties and remembered, instead, that night in Ribadesella and the potential for the bad times to be... not so bad after all.

1 comment:

Toni said...

Well, going out with a Spanish gym teacher doesn't seem too bad! ;)