Spain – The First 48 Hours

As I begin my first full day in Spain there is already so much to share that I´m eager to put it down while it is still vivid in my memory. It´s about 11:00AM. As I upload several videos I´m typing away on a sticky keyboard in a small internet cafe down the street from my hostel.

The Flight

My flight over was good. Long, but good. Matt picked me up from the apartment around 9 and by 10:00 I found myself checking in and going through security. Lines were non-existent and by 10:30, after a quick snack, I was relaxing at my departure gate watching the minutes slowly march by. Despite the lack of lines the airport itself was alive with activity. People coming, going, and generally caught up in the hustle and bustle that makes the lifeblood of an airport so fascinating to watch. By 11:30 I double- checked my gate number, only to find that it had been changed during my brief nap. After tracking down the new gate we boarded and set off.

I´m anything but impressed with US Airways. While the staff on the US leg was courteous and the highlight of the trip, the planes are old, dirty junkers that have been stripped of everything humanly possible.  It´s truly embarrassing when compared to companies like EasyJet and RyanAir. The US planes are older/just as old, in comparable/worse condition, they charge for everything, the service is mediocre and yet the fares for the US Airways flights are at best 10X the price.  I´m relatively confident that the planes on both legs of my trip were older than I was and showed it. On the first leg food, and even more obnoxiously water, was available for sale – despite the 3.5 plus hour length of the trip.

After a 30 plus minute delay getting off the ground we eventually found our way to Philadelphia. Luckily they´d factored in over an hour of extra time for delays and I was able to make my connecting flight with just enough time in between to grab a quick bite to eat, and to refill my water bottle.

Unfortunately, the Phili to Madrid flight was delayed by some sort of mechanical problem initially which at one point involved them shutting the entire plane/power off, which was rather entertaining.  By the time we finally got up and running and began our taxi out to the runway the weather had deteriorated forcing us to get a de-icing spraydown before taxing back to the takeoff queue.  No sooner had we finished the de-icing wash and begun to taxi back to the queue when the weather changed again, forcing a second trip to the de-icing zone for a different type of chemical spraydown.  Two+ hours later we were finally prepared for takeoff and airborn. 

 Before watching the one in flight movie – Journey to the Center of the Earth – on the old wall mounted plasma, dinner was served.  Chopped southwestern style chicken, with rice, corn, salad and a roll. Unfortunately, they somehow managed to burn the rice presumably by having the container on the heater or in the microwave too long.  Beyond that the lettuce was wilted – but it made for a good enough snack. On the upside I didn´t get food poisoning =p. My post nap routine consisted of reading, snatching brief naps, listening to music and generally staring at the back of the seat in front of me. 

The highlight of the flight was the sunrise.  As we crossed the ocean at 35k feet with the sea below us, a blood red sunrise slowly spread across the horizon.  It was truly spectacular with some of the most vivid reds and oranges I’ve seen in a sunrise in a long time.  The sunrise´s beauty was made that much more dramatic by our altitude and the absence of clouds.  Truly stunning.

Madrid

I arrived in Madrid around 11:30 AM on Wednesday.  Always a weird sensation to leave at 1PM one day and then to arrive in your destination nearly a day later.   Customs was incredibly easy and by 11:45 I was standing at the entrance doors to the airport scratching my head, letting the realization that I´d made it sink in, and trying to decide my next step.  As you might imagine, first things first – money.  After a little hunting I eventually tracked down an ATM and pulled out some cash.  After picking up a packet of gum to break the large bills the ATM gave me and to get change for the Metro I tracked down a tourist information chiosk, picked up a free map and then continued towards the Metro.  Directions, metro map and city map in hand I quickly picked up a metro ticket and traveled my way through the 3 metro lines I needed, before finally arriving at Tirso De Molina.  The Spanish metro so far has been extremely clean, easy to navigate and punctual – fantastic!

It was not until I made my way up the old granite steps out of the metro station and into a brisk, sunny, Madrid day that I truly felt like I was in Spain.  The metro station is in a small square, ringed by a market, various odd shops, a small theatre, and a number of bars.  Among the newspaper stands there are 5 or 6 flower vendors selling beautiful arrangements of freshly cut flowers, moss, vases and other similarly themed items. 

My hostel was about 100 meters down one of the smaller, one-way side streets off of the main square.  With the office located on the 4th floor it was an entertaining adventure to find the right buzzer on the door, then to make my way up to the Musas Hostel.  The hostel itself is clean, modern, fun and laid back with fantastic facilities. The rooms are extremely clean and all have in-suite bathrooms which is nice.  The room I´m in is a 10 person mixed sex room with bunkbeds sandwiched in, in every way possible.  With free 15 minute web access, a full kitchen and great common area it´s a great deal for 15 Euro a night.  The hostel itself is oddly decorated with vividly graphic, but artistic sketches of women in the nude or half drawn images of sextual acts.   Entire walls are covered in the colorful, framed, 8×10 sketches creating a fun, artistic, and highly entertaining scrapbook like feel.  

After checking in, I dropped my bag in the baggage room and made my way to the common area where I dozed, read and checked my e-mail while I waited until they finished cleaning the rooms at 3.   By 3:15 I was snoring away contentedly in my hostel bunk eager to snatch a few hours of sleep for what I knew would be a full evening.

By 5:30 I was up and ready for food and exploring.   Ready for something familiar I made my way down a random street from the square and quickly found a kebab shop.  With a steaming kebab in one hand and a soda in the other I took in the street’s odd assortment of Asian, Middle Eastern, and bizarre clothing/rug/trinket stores while enjoying the cobblestone streets, historic architecture and general feel of the city.   My foray into the surrounding area lasted about an hour before I found myself back at the hostel engaged in conversation with/getting to know a number of the other travelers.  As expected most are Australians and New Zealanders with a number of Canadians and Americans thrown into the mix.   After another quick foray to the corner store for beer and salami I ended up cooking an extra chicken breast given to me by an Australian couple who didn’t want to go to waste.  

By 9:00 Eduardo – a gentleman from Mexico City, who has been living in Spain for the last 6 years and currently works for the hostel – brought out a large tub of Sangria and a deck of cards.   After a warm up game of Kings Cup we demolished the Sangria and all elected to pay the 10 Euro for the pub crawl Edwardo was leading. 

After a few brief stops at nearby hostels our group made our way to the first pub.  There, as part of the crawl we each got a free pint and an hour or so to mix, mingle, and relax.   Somehow I ended up meeting a group of 3 girls my age, out with an older husband/wife and family friend.  Despite my nearly non-existent and their nearly non-existent English we quickly hit it off – though for the life of me, I´m still confused about what they were out celebrating.  Each had Christmas raindeer antlers on, flashing/glowy rings, and two of them had large boas.  We danced, we chatted, we laughed, we drank and before long one of the girls ended up putting her antlers on me and insisting I wear/keep ’em.  After a thoroughly entertaining hour or two the pub crawl moved on. I said goodbye to my new found friends, and got a hearty laughs for the rest of the pub crawl for my antlers.

The next few pubs we went to were all surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night and an absolute blast.  Despite intending to get to bed by 1:00AM, I found myself at the last stop on the crawl – a large underground night club.  Too tired to dance more and with the pub crawl winding down I elected to set off back towards the hostel which I knew was somewhere to the south.  Starving I picked up a can of pringles – the only thing I could find and began wandering slowly south.  Eventually, with a general idea where I was, I was lost.   Wandering through the winding warren of deserted streets I eventually ended up walking near/past a group of 3 well dressed locals in their late 30s/early 40s.   As I approached one of the guys asked me a quick question in Spanish which I didn´t understand. After a quick exchange, he asked if I knew where a bar was.  Right as he did, we apparently found it.  The bar – was a local hole in the wall.  With a door that looked more like the entrance to a house than an establishment, no sign, and definitely no windows.  The gentleman I´d be talking to asked if I wanted to join them…I thought about it for a second, sized them up, considered the time and then went for it. 

Just inside the door and to the left was the bar.  In many ways it looked like the entrance to a tiny hotel.  With stairs going up on one side, and the bar where the receptionist would ordinarily be.  We passed by the bar, and quickly made a left down a small hallway into a small room full of people, cigarette smoke, small tables and music.  Despite the late hour – probably close to 4AM the place was packed.  A quick count showed more than 40 people sandwiched into the small area.  The room had a wooden bench seat that wrapped around most of it with a tiled back that stretched up to about head height as you sat. There was a tightly packed small coffee shop and tables in the middle.  We sat and Carmen, the woman in the group quickly said hello to “El Maesrto” an older gentleman with a cane, and suit coat, who periodically burst out into low, smoke flavored song.  

There was one acoustic guitar which was periodically passed between people while others seemingly at random burst out into song.  Sometimes brief 30 second blurbs, other times longer snippits of song.  The crowd as a whole snapped or clapped along all the while drinking and smoking.  Almost everyone there had a cigarette in hand and the smoke left everyone’s voice rough and eyes red.  It added to the atmosphere.  The walls were simply decorated with photos of flamenco singers and performers. The gentleman I´d met was thrilled to share the experience with me.  

Eager to capture the moment, but feeling as though it might be inappropriate to pull out my camera, I turned my video camera on in my pocket to capture some of the songs and the atmosphere.   Here are the two videos – though i´m afraid they´re audio only:

Eventually my new found friends left and I decided it was time to continue to wayward trip home.   Here´s a brief video I shot as I walked – one i´m sure you´ll love mom:

Not to fear, I eventually found my way home safe and sound, crawled into bed, and think I have managed to thoroughly beat my jet lag.

Time to get to exploring the city! Bye for now!

Amsterdam – Updated

After evaluating my options I decided to book a flight from London to Amsterdam instead of trying to deal with the ferry/train situation or wasting days going by bus. With Easyjet, Bmi, and Ryanair it’s amazing how cheap flying can be. Think Southwest – but sometimes even better. I made it to the airport by tube, got through customs and check-in without any hiccups and then enjoyed the brief flight down to Amsterdam. There I was relieved to find that almost everything/everyone was in/spoke English. This let me navigate around and find my way into the city proper without too much trouble.

The entire city spans out from the central rail station in oddly shaped rings with canals making wide loops mirroring the streets. It’s a pretty incredible layout – but also very confusing for something that seems apparently straight forward and symmetrical. The architecture is incredible. For whatever reason a lot of the older buildings have settled which results in all sorts of oddly leaning buildings meanwhile the cobblestone streets are beautiful and the canals – every turn you find yourself in an even more picturesque setting. Also, the leaves on a lot of the trees are starting to turn -or perhaps are always colored- either way it adds to the feeling. The canals are usually fairly quiet, with boats moored all along them everywhere you look. The boats themselves are pretty amazing. Old barges, small pleasure craft, odd little skiffs, you never know what you’ll see… if it’ll be halfway under water, or how it will be colored.

My hostel was located about a 5 minute walk away from the central rail station right on the edge of the red light district. To be honest, I think the street in addition to being where most of the hostels were, also was the gay district. There were some really…different shops along it. The hostel opened up onto the small pedestrian/bike street and behind it there was a large circular courtyard with a church in it. My room on the 2nd floor -which i shared with 9 or so other beds-opened up onto the courtyard…which was great, but also a bit annoying at times… go figure…the church had bells =) The hostel itself was a bit of a dump. They allowed smoking in it, so the entire place smelled like weed and while the beds were decent and the sheets were clean the walls had writing written all over them/carved into the walls. Perhaps the most comical part was the Bathrooms. The compartments were so small that one almost needed to open the door to sit down or stand up before shutting the door again…that or become some sort of super human circus acrobat.

It was also interesting seeing an active mini-cathedral on the fringe of the red-light district. On that same square there were several “coffee” shops and if memory serves there may have been an adult store or two. Wild contrast – but then again, that’s Amsterdam.

I spent the first part of the day proper after arriving exploring the architectural elements of the city. I basically just wandered around – got lost and explored. It was great. The winding streets, packed with people, with new sites and scents etc. were all pretty fantastic. The swans, the trees, the bicycles – that’s the other thing – there are bikes EVERYWHERE. There is one bike parking station in front of the rail yard that is the size of a 2-3 story parking garage – all full of bikes and nothing but bikes. In fact, the most dangerous thing about Amsterdam I think is the bikes and mopeds. They all have bells and just go roaring down the streets ringing them. God help you if you don’t move.

The red light district was intense…especially at night. You always hear talk of the doors/windows etc. but it really surprised me how many there were once the sun set and the red lights went on. Normal buildings you walk past during the day suddenly transform into a veritable art gallery full of flesh in all different types, shapes, and sizes. Definitely a different experience walking down those streets. Sometimes I felt like I was the one on display, not vice versa. With the girls staring you up and down, trying to engage you, even had a few knock on the glass to get my attention trying to get me to come over. No worries though, I didn’t browse the wares. Though there were times I definitely felt like Odysseus tied to the mast, as he passed the Siren’s isles.

In addition to deciding against a hooker, I also decided mushrooms didn’t really have any appeal or draw. A fact I only mention, because I don’t even want to imagine what y’all might expect from a 22 year old male wandering Amsterdam on his own. Any how – After exploring the red light district a bit at night, getting some food, and grabbing a drink I headed back to the Hostel and called it a night.

The first day proper consisted of walking and exploring. The day itself was overcast and misted off and on throughout the day. Nothing to fret about, but still enough to keep things cooler and make taking photos a PIA. I woke up, pulled myself together and then before I left the hostel started chatting with an Israeli couple traveling together and an American-or was it Canadian? girl staying in the dorm below me. She was traveling on her own before heading to London to work in the Fashion industry. Both being on our own, we ended up hitting it off and elected to meet up later that day to explore the nightlife. Two other Canadian girls (hairdressers actually) traveling in Europe before a conference in Greece also joined us.

After meeting each other and socializing a bit i struck off to explore the city. I wandered until I found some food (Burger King of all things) then continued on until I meandered past a 3 story sex museum. Three stories for 3 Euro seemed like a fair trade so in I went. The museum itself was pretty fascinating. Chock full of erotic carvings, photos, video, etc. from across history. When you look at modern social perception of pornography – it’s often – in the states at least, treated like some new creation that stems from modern perversion and technology. It’s funny how different the reality of it all is. From ancient oriental wall hangings that had a secret pull away front end that revealed hand painted porn to authentic Greek plates and vases that depicted sexual acts. One of the more bizarre was a sword that King Leopold had commissioned which had a man sexually engaged with – if i remember right a lion on the pommel. Hows that for a firm grip on something? The Museum also had a number of mannikins some of which were animated. It was an odd experience to say the least.

From there I had something truly unusual happen. As i explored the city, map in hand I got lost. Occasionally, I’ll get a bit off from where I mean to be as I wander, but this time I was 100% confused. No idea which direction was north, or what would take me weird. To be honest, it’s one of the first times that’s happened to me in years. It was an odd and humbling feeling. It wasn’t so much scary – as i knew i could always ask directions – as it was just eye opening. It was a new feeling, a new sensation. Definitely different than what i was familiar with. I can’t imagine feeling that on a regular basis.

Eventually I continued to wander until I figured out where I was – which as it so happens wasn’t close to where I thought I was. Oops. The downside of my lost wanderings was that I missed my time-frame for the National Museum in Amsterdam. The upside was I got to see a lot of the city, wandered through the flower market, and a book flee market. The wandering was beautiful, and in many ways I think I got more out of it, than wandering through another museum – Berlin’s better for that anyhow right!

After my wandering, I returned to the hostel, took a quick nap then headed downstairs to the pub under the hostel for a discounted meal (hostel owned) where I bumped into the first Canadian girl from earlier. We ate, then headed upstairs to pick up the others who had gotten then hands on some mushrooms earlier and were sobering up. They all finished getting ready and we headed out to the pubs – where we poked around and explored a bit. Meeting some locals, as well as some other travelers while relaxing, unwinding, taking in the sites and partying a bit. The night for the most part was a fun blur as we wandered between 4 pubs and spent some time out by the canals.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time. So, that’s it for now. Time to switch to another hostel here in Berlin for a night and to hit up the city! Did the national art and Bode yesterday. I’ll try for the wall and some other sights today.