Saturday, March 31, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 9

I've survived another Atlantic crossing . . . we docked in Funchal four days ago, and Lisbon two days after that. It feels good to be back to the Iberian penninsula, although I didn't expect to be back so soon.

I was eating lunch in the mess with my new roommate (Cezar, a Polish-Swedish trombone player) when an older man we didn't recognize came up to us. He asked where we were from, and then returned later with two little pamphlets in our respective languages. "Read, and they will explain you why so many bad things happen to people." It was of course a short collection of musings and bible verses -- although they were from both testaments, which was unusual. The guys from the seafarer's mission usually stick to the new testament, it's a little more upbeat and sailors generally need to hear the good news first.

We were polite and took the booklets -- he was a nice man, and seemed genuine in his beliefs, but I couldn't help but think about his chioce of words. "Explain (to) you why so many bad things happen to people." That's a fairly dismal way to put it . . . from a philosophical standpoint, how can the answer to that question be anything useful? It speaks of a system that has already decided that life is shit before it even happens. That's not how I want to live . . . and how do we know which things are bad and which are good, anyway? I thought of telling him a story from Stephen Mitchell's commentary on the Tao te Ching, but English wasn't his first language and missionaries are not usually very interested in hearing what other people have to say anyway.

The story goes like this:

There was a young farmer who was very poor. He had no wife or children, and only one horse to work his entire farm. One day the horse ran away and he was left with nothing. All the villagers came and said, "Oh, how terrible! What a tragedy!" except for his elderly father, who just smiled. Later he asked his father, "Why do you stay so quiet, father?"

"Because maybe this is not a tragedy. Maybe this is the best of fortunes!"

The farmer shrugged. His father was getting old; he would be patient with him and his foolishness.

A few months later, the horse came back. It had found a wild mate of good stock, and soon the farmer had a whole stable full of excellent horses. He became very rich breeding them and soon had a large estate, a beautiful wife, and a handsome son. All of the villagers said, "Oh, what luck!" except for his father. One day the farmer asked him, "Why are you so quiet, father?"

"Because maybe this is not good luck. Maybe this is the most terrible of fortunes."

The farmer was puzzled, but he loved his father and so he smiled and went about his business.

The farmer's son loved to ride the many horses they had and was an excellent horseman. One day he slipped and fell, breaking his pelvis and receiving other terrible injuries. The villagers gathered around his sick-bed, consoling the farmer and his wife. "Oh, how terrible!" But again the farmer's father said nothing. He just smiled to himself in his big chair in the corner.

"Father, how can you be happy when your grandson is so injured?"

"Because maybe this is not misfortune. Maybe this is the best of luck!"

The farmer was angry, but his grief kept him from fighting with his father.

The son healed slowly, but he had acquired a limp and could not ride any more. The farmer and his wife did not care; they were happy that he was alive. A year later, the barbarians invaded from the North. All able bodied young men were called up to fight in the army; all of the young men from the village were taken except for the farmer's son, who was not fit to fight in the war. The battle was fierce, and nine tenths of the village's young men were killed. The villagers told the farmer, "You are lucky your son could not go!"

But his father sat in the corner, silent.


I think you can see the point of the story.

In related news, we will celebrate Easter this cruise, and at the weekly entertainment meeting the cruise director introduced the variety of religious personnel that Crystal has brought on board to cater to the guests' spiritual needs. Usually we have a Catholic priest, but in Lisbon we added a Protestant Minister and a Jewish Rabbi (Passover is coming up as well). I realized as we were leaving that this is the first time in my life when I might actually witness a Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi walk into a bar . . .

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Poem of the day 3.28.12

from "The Night Air" by Rumi

". . . The judge then asked the youngest brother,
"What if a man cannot be made to say anything?
How do you learn his hidden nature?"

"I sit in front of him in silence,
and set up a ladder of patience,
and if in his presence a language from beyond joy
and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,
I know that his soul is as deep and bright
as the star Canopus rising over Yemen.

And so when I start speaking a powerful right arm
of words sweeping down, I know him from what I say,
and how I say it, because there's a window open
between us, mixing the night air of our beings."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Camino Entry 19

Day 19, December 13th, 2011
383.2km completed

Expenses, Day 19:
Bakery: 6.20
Coffee: 1.20
Compeed: 7.80
Hot Meal: 14.00
Extra Lighter: 1.65
Coffee: 1.10
Albergue: 10.00
Total: 31.95
Trip Total: 418.59

Yesterday’s challenges were hunger, loneliness, and fear. It was a hard day.

First, hunger. There was no food in Ena, no food at the monastery, and no food at Saint Serós. It was a hungry day.

Perhaps the lesson here is patience. Instead of waiting hours for the bakery in Estación La Peña to open, I set off on my own into the mountains with no food. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The climb to Ena was pretty enough, through a pine forest following a stream for several hours. The path crossed a horse ranch; letting myself in through the makeshift barbed wire gate, I saw a pair of horses. They wear bells, like sheep, to make them easier to find.

The vegetation began to thin out around Ena as I moved into the high country. The citizens at Ena must not like outsiders . . . there’s a sign labeled “center of town” that points away down the road. I took a wander through the town and saw not a single living soul even though it was noon on a Monday. The bar (such as it was) was closed. I continued onwards.

The road continued to wind upward through the hills. Climbing up a narrow valley about an hour and a half from town I realized that I had not seen a friendly yellow arrow for the greater part of thirty minutes. I thought back along the route . . . there had been no diverging roads, but I had been so focused on just placing one foot in front of the other (uphill, empty growling stomach) that perhaps I had missed one.

The territory surrounding me was no great help. The rough dirt tracks were the only signs of human habitation that I could see – I was above even the altitude of basic agriculture. The only other landmark that I could see was a huge red cliff in the distance with what looked like a stairway up to a door in the cliff face (I assumed that this was the monastery). The path led roughly in that direction, so I pressed on.

It was a huge and terrible scene, magnificent in its silent desolation.

Two hours later I was feeling desperate and hopeless. The road had turned East, and was falling slowly again towards farmland. I still had not seen an arrow, and the strange stair was falling out of sight to the West. Worst of all, I was headed away from Santiago. Spotting a farmhouse on the next hill, I made up my mind; I would walk there and ask directions, and if no one was home I would turn around and walk the three and a half hours back to Ena to see where I had gone wrong.

It was testing my nerves. I had not seen a single living person all day (except one passing car) and I was possibly lost in a desolate foreign land with no food and an empty stomach. No one knew I was here and my family was not expecting an “I’m still alive” email for another week. Should I twist or break an ankle, I would be in some real trouble.

As I neared the farmhouse, I heard the putt-putt-putt of a tractor coming towards me. I waved down the two old farmers and asked how to get to Botaya. They said something I didn’t understand. “What?”

“Over there, over the hill! 100 meters!”

I waved my thanks and ran up over the hill. There it was – Botaya, the town I’d been looking for all afternoon. Just one hill more . . . I was on the right track all along. I guess my nerves held just long enough.

Botaya (another pop. < 50 village in my guidebook) had no food either (I was beyond surprise at this point) but I filled up my water bottle and started up the path to the monastery San Juan de la Peña. At this point the tourist restaurant at the monastery was the closest food; I told my grumbling stomach to hush and pressed on.

It was a steep climb. With the added 4.2km from the cave to Estación La Peña, I was well past the 25km mark already, and now I had to climb 500 meters in elevation over a 2.4km segment of path. Much of it was on all fours over rough stones. At some point I stopped caring about what the path looked like or where it went . . . just climb climb climb.

It was a surprise when I reached the monastery. I emerged from the forest into a small playground near the tourist car-park. A stone monument from the Amics dels Peregrinos marked the spot, and the arrow painter had left a little salute. I followed the path up to a field on the mountaintop . . .

. . . and to a deserted monastery. No cars in the lot. Windows and doors all shut and shuttered. Iron gates locked. I mean, it’s a monastery, I expected it to be quiet, but do the monks go South for the winter or something?

I read a small sign that said, “Open for visits on weekends only during winter.” Apparently everyone knew this already except for me. And where the hell were all the monks?

There are two monasteries de San Juan de la Peña, by the way – the old one and the new one. “New” means that it was built in the 17th century when the old one was destroyed by fire. The new one is nice – built almost entirely of red brick on a plain on top of the mountain, it has a few large outbuildings surrounding it (one is apparently a luxury hotel?). I assume the others are facilities for monks. It is a very quiet place.

I found a sign showing the location of a number of paths from the monastery. One of them led to Santa Cruz de La Serós, the next town in my guidebook that was listed as having food and shelter (although at this point I was seriously beginning to doubt that anyone in this part of Spain ate anything at all). I copied the map into my book and followed the trail – it was 5.30pm at this point; it was pushing it but I figured I had just enough useable light left to make it into Santa Cruz (pop. 157). I followed the trail exactly . . .

. . . only to find myself at a breathtaking viewpoint of the Pyrenees. I use “breathtaking” in a literal sense – I broke through the foliage and “holy shit . . .” Amazing. I feel bad for the poor fools trying to cross them now in winter.

But the trail hadn’t taken me to Santa Cruz, and I was running out of sunlight. I turned back and reached the road again just as the sun was setting (passing a totally unhelpful blank signpost in the forest at the meeting of four paths). Checking my backup road map, I could see that the road also led to Santa Cruz, but by a much longer route than the supposed path – at least seven extra kilometers. I took the road, so as to keep my way even in the dark.

My sense of direction must have been turned around at some point, because I was convinced that I would not see the Old Monastery and yet the road took me right past it. It is, I think, much more impressive than the new one. Dating from the 10th century, it has been mostly restored and lies halfway up the mountain under the overhang of a large cliff. It is literally under the overhang; the monastery is built right into the rock. I only got to see the exterior, deserted in the semi-darkness, but it is a place I would like to visit again. The famous pictures of the place look about as awesome as expected.

I kept following the road until the sun had fully set and I was navigating by starlight (no moon yet). I thought of Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic . . . alone, at night, with nothing but his own fears in the cockpit with him, hoping that the machinery would hold out. I was in much the same position, having passed the 30km mark long ago (after no food and sleeping in a cave the night before), hoping my feet held out.

I arrived in Santa Cruz de La Serós. The city was brightly lit, but again deserted. I was starting to get a little creeped out by this, since it was only 8pm (my guidebook was at least two hours optimistic about how long this stage takes). Finally I saw a guy smoking a cigarette on a second story balcony over the main square. I asked him if there was anywhere to buy food. He said no, everything was closed. 16 hours of walking, 30+ km, and not a damn thing to eat anywhere! Not to mention nowhere to stay!

I limped around the town; he was right, everything was closed. Hmm. I filled my water bottle at the fountain in the square before sitting down to rest my feet and to think.

I think the guy on the balcony must have seen me from the couch in front of his TV. He came back outside. “Hey, a question!”

“Yeah?” I replied.

“Do you want a sandwhich?”


“Give me just a minute . . .”

And he came back to hand me a sausage sandwich wrapped in foil and a can of beer. Nothing has tasted so good in my entire life. I even ate the crumbs that fell on the ground. Bless that man.

Finishing off the beer, I thought some more. It was getting colder – there would be frost by morning. I already had all of my clothes on, including my rain gear and mom’s love scarf, but it wouldn’t be enough up here in the mountains if I was just sitting still. I needed somewhere to rig my sleeping bag again before it got too unbearably cold, somewhere that the people wouldn’t mind too much (it was a fairly upscale town) and where I could lay down and rest my legs. The next town was another 6kms, and I was in no shape to go anywhere.

This must be what homeless people feel like every day. Christ.

I found a spot just outside the city, on the road I had just come down. It was a little meadow up an embankment from the road, too high for passing drivers to see me and with a big row of shrubs protecting me from prying eyes and the wind (learned my lesson from that first night above Barcelona, see?). It was a bit damp, but I laid my rain gear down first, cut away some thorn bushes with my swiss army knife, and spread out my sleeping bag. I removed my boots but left everything else on (the same clothes I’d been wearing since Sarsamarcuello). Just when I was wondering if I would have any trouble sleeping I was out like a light.

When sleeping in the open, I find that my body follows a schedule. Solo long-distance sailors speak of this sometimes. Every hour, on the hour, I wake up, check if everything is okay, and pass back out. It was an uneventful night.

Around 6:30 I woke up and decided to stay awake. It was my goal to be packed up and mobile at first light, in case someone came out and noticed my bright orange sleeping bag in the middle of their field (if you’re a farmer growing thorn bushes in Northern Spain, I apologize). The moonlight doesn’t bring it out as much, but in the sun my sleeping bag practically glows. There was no light yet, though, so I just lay on my back and watched the world spin. The moon was so bright that I’d lost most of the stars, but a few constellations stood out and I was able to find the North Star. It was an absolutely quiet moment.

Eventually the telltale grey glow began to show in the Southeast. I stirred from my bag – it had actually been pretty cozy through the night, and I know it had been cold because the thing was covered in frost. By god I’m abusing the poor thing, but a heavy-duty sleeping bag was the best investment I made in Barcelona. I “performed my necessities” as Rooster Cogburn would say (toothpaste does funny things when you freeze it) and got back on the road, trying to ignore all the chalkboard menus sitting just inside locked restaurant doors.

I decided to follow the road again to St. Cilia instead of the Camino, as it was still too dark to follow the friendly yellow arrows and getting to St. Cilia early would do me no good if everything was still closed. On the road I started talking to myself about my favorite meals, working my through each bite. I started with the skillet breakfast at the Robin’s Nest that had been my last meal in the United States (back in March), moving through the strawberry waffles at the truck stop in West Virginia, spinach Börek in Vienna’s Turkish quarter, Martin’s egg+cheese+bread combination (the pilgrim sandwich) in Montserrat, chicken fried steak, cornbread, barbeque chicken, dad’s linguine with clam sauce, mom’s chocolate chip cookies, pork ribs, onions of any type, cannelloni, tamales . . . you get the idea.

I gotta say, though, that my body is a trooper. I figure that I made 35km and climbed a mountain on four hours of sleep and an empty stomach, and then slept outside on the bare ground in below-zero temperatures for six hours. I woke up that morning a little stiff and a bit hungry, but otherwise no worse for wear. That would not have been the case two weeks ago.

But my mind was starting to weaken. The fear was there; I’d been wrestling with it for two days now, and being hungry and cold make the fear stronger. I needed some food.

Coming into St. Cilia, I began to feel a bit better. There were people here going about their business – something I hadn’t seen. The two farmers and the guy on the balcony were the only people I had seen anywhere in the past two days. This wouldn’t have been bad if I was just in the country, but this included towns and villages – all deserted. The phrase, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” came to mind. But here there were people!

And I saw a sign – “Panadería” – “Bakery.” It was dark inside, but the handle turned and I bought at least two kilos of baked goods from a baker whom I was tempted to kiss on both cheeks out of joy. He even gave me a flat loaf of bread covered in caramelized sugar straight from the oven that was as big as a turkey tray. I downed the whole thing. Victory was mine; sweet, sweet victory.

And it was a victory – a victory over the fear that wants to make me turn around and quit this crazy venture, to run back home where it is safe and warm. This was not a victory over a physical obstacle -- although that was part of it, human beings can go much longer than two days without food --but rather a victory over fear.

Coelho talks about “warriors of the light” and sometimes that imagery gives me strength. I trudge forward through the mud, dirty and weary. My armor is dented and broken from many defeats, my sword notched and dull. Around me are dark fears – sometimes we fight, and they throw me down in the muck, laughing. This fear, though, I fought for a long time – two days, until finally we threw down our weapons and grappled each other in the slime and ooze. For one of the first times in my life, I prevailed, and with my knee on its neck I saw fear running through its own eyes – fear’s weapon turned against itself. With my free hand I picked up my sword and struck the demon right through the head, exploding with white light as I did so.

Fear is legion. There is no end to the demons; they will always return. But in this moment, I was invincible – bursting with white light, armor shining and polished, sword glowing like flame. And the other demons saw, and took notice.

This is how I felt, walking down the road to Puente la Reina, licking the sugary residue from my half-burnt fingers. I was invincible to fear (at least for the time being) because of that white energy. And because that light is love, I decided to take a day off from fear and love everything around me. The trees, the sky, the people, the little yellow arrows (I told each one that I passed that I loved them – a very, very strange pilgrim I must seem). Even the camino itself; the very same camino that I was damning at the top of my lungs in the hills outside Botaya.

The fear will return – it always does. But I will defeat it again. I have a pack full of food and the camino is laid out before me; keep laying it down, and I will keep walking. The Camino Aragonés is well marked, I’ve already met another pilgrim here at the albergue in Arrés (even if he is a grumpy Spaniard); the next stage of my pilgrimage begins. I am ready.

P.s. I passed the end of the Camí Catalán today, where it joins the Camino Aragonés. It looked typically thorny and treacherous – a loose, rough rock fall winding up into the mountains. I stopped for a moment and said goodbye, a little wistfully. We’ll see what the next weeks bring. I am ready.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Camino Entry 18

Day 18, December 12th, 2011
357.6km completed

I managed to get four or five good hours of sleep in the cave, all in hourly increments. I walked the train tracks in the moonlight at 4am back to Estación La Peña, nearly getting run over by a freight train in the process (mental note – don’t do that again). There was still no food (bakery’s closed today as well) and no signs of life. I decided to press on rather than spend another night here as there is no food and no shelter . . . I’m on the outskirts of Ena now at around 11:30am and I still haven’t seen a living soul all day. I gotta find some food . . . visions of Börek, eggs, chocolate, and other such things are floating through my head.

Expenses, Day 18:
Trip Total: 386.64

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Camino Entry 17

Camino de Santiago Pt. 2

Day 17, December 11th, 2011
342.4km completed

Expenses, Day 17:
Coffee, Bocadillo, and sweetbread: 8.30
Trip Total: 386.64

This will be an eventful day to start the new notebook with. Let’s see if I can get much down before the light fails.

I started a bit late out of Sarsamarcuello, around 8:30am. The path led straight up a rock fall – it was slow, picky business, but soon I was up above the cloud level again, just like yesterday.

Today, though, I was headed across the mountains. Up, up, up, to a new dirt road I went. It twisted around the top of the Sierra de Loarre and around the West end of the range, giving me an entire morning of stupendous views just like the ones from Castillo Loarre yesterday (was that only yesterday?).

I passed to Romanic churches and the remains of an old keep . . . they must have built them in the most badass places on purpose. The keep was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, where flocks of black birds nested. I could hear goats below picking their way through the stones, the bells around their necks a mixture of different tones.

I even took a brief detour (one and a half hours) to get to a viewpoint up in the mountains. I didn’t follow the entire side path, but I ate lunch at the edge of a massive cliff and so it was worth it. I took the detour because I saw sheep in the valley below on that side of the path – they remind me of Coelho’s shepherd hero, Santiago, and I am trying to follow the signs. I am yet unsure as to how well I am reading them – you will see why in a minute.

I took the camino down from the ridge. It would around along the valley for a couple of hours, heading North from the pass Sant Román. A squad of four wheelers and dirtbikes passed me twice, like a unit of cavalry thundering by. They communicate with hand signals – when the leader saw me, he held up an open palm to warn the others to slow down.

Nearing the end of the valley, I looked forward to see the two opposing sides come around and in front of me to form two massive pillars of stone flanking the exit. Tolkein, have you been here? It was stunning. To exit the valley, the path clung to the left side before leaping out into space on a slender stone arch. Forty or fifty meters long, the bridge was less than three meters wide and had no handrails – it was only a plain dirt path with a drop of more than a hundred meters on each side! Good thing I don’t get vertigo. The other side of the bridge butted into the left pillar and wound around the sheet of granite on a path blasted into the rock. It was quite the feat of engineering and construction.

From here I could see the valley spread out below me, a small logging town across the river as my next stop. Down the slope, across the field (no path here), to the train tracks and across the river I made it into town – a place that could have been in West Virginia (if it was a little poorer). The plan was to provision at a bakery here before making ten more kilometers to Ena. No dice, though – I forget that it was Sunday, and on Sunday the bakery closes early. Maybe if I hadn’t followed the sheep I could have gotten there in time . . .

I had two options – make the hardest two stages of the camino on an empty stomach, or find alternate housing and wait for the bakery to open tomorrow. I opted for the latter and set out West along the river to the next town (where my guide mentioned there was a hostel). That was true (there were three hostels, actually), but nothing was open. Shit. At the only open bar they told me to ask at the church if I could set up my sleeping bag there. I got a sandwich and a couple prepackaged sweetbreads (lord only knows what decade they were actually baked in) from the bar and headed to the church.

The church was deserted. While I was standing, wondering what to do, an old man came by walking his dog. I asked him if there was any place to stay here at the church – he said no, but that he could stamp my credential. I think he was the priest, since the stamp was in his house and it is right next to the church . . . but he had a very odd little walled yard complete with a beautiful mosaic ying-yang table and so I’m not exactly sure what type of priest he was.

I tried the other hostel he recommended – also closed.

I forgot to mention that this town is built around an artificial lake (an “embalse"), dammed to hold irrigation water in the 1920’s. The exit has a geological formation very similar to the exit of the valley I wrote about earlier, except that it is much larger and there is a pillar in the center as well. The dam is in two sections, meeting at the pillar in the center, and the spillway is carved through the pillar itself and blasts into the canyon wall before ricocheting into a pool far below. I can hear the roar of it even now.

I had to cross that dam to get to the town, and on my way there I noticed a little hole in the cliff. Out of options, and with the sun nearing the horizon, I thought of it and returned . . . it is a little cave where they started some construction work and then stopped. One hall goes straight back about one hundred meters while another branches off at a right angle near the end of it . . . that’s where I am right now, writing this in the light thrown by the little prayer candle I cut in half at Montserrat. The cave is actually pretty cozy, even if the raw stone is hard on the back. Once I realized that the worst smelling thing in here is my socks I felt a lot more comfortable. I’m sharing the cave with three hibernating bats (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) although I think the light is disturbing them so I will finish this up now.

Talk about getting in touch with the older things in life . . .


I just went outside to piss. I have never seen the night lit up so brightly. There’s a full moon and no electric lights, and so after being in the absolute dark of the cave it is like coming outside into broad daylight. I could read my watch – 1:15am.

I got some sleep, but not much – I suppose that’s to be expected on a hard, rocky floor. The Marx brothers are out hunting – I heard them leave a few hours ago. The cave is at least five degrees warmer than it is outside, and so I can see why people used them for so long.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Camino Entry 16

Day 16, December 10, 2012
327.5km completed

The world just seems to be built differently out here, like I’m on a different planet. It is so quiet . . . you can hear, as well as see, for kilometers. A low, heavy mist settles everywhere, but I could see the moon setting this morning huge and orange like an electric light. A little town glitters in the distance, and the sun is rising like a dimmer switch being turned up.

Expenses, Day 16
Castillo Loarre Entry: 2.80
Chocolate con Churros: 2.90
Bread: 1.00
Pastries and Cheese: 5.25
Baguette: 0.85
Coffee: 1.00
Albuergue donation: 5.00

I was resting, letting my feet dry out near the Castillo Loarre visitor center – sitting on a bench with my bare feet out. A little four year old girl came by, staring entranced at my toes. I wiggled them and she laughed before her parents fetched her back. It’s the little things.

There are two things I need to write about before I forget them.

Outside of Huesca I came across a strange beehive-like structure made of stone. They were used to guard the vineyards back in the day, but during the civil war they were used as shelter by the rebels fighting Franco. Inside was carved:

(Communist Hammer and Sickle)

Which is the same side that George Orwell fought for in the war against the Fascists.

In Huesca I visited the cathedral on my way out of town. It was comforting, strengthening, and reminded me why I’m doing this (even though I don’t know why I’m doing this . . . it reminded me of the part that does know). I don’t know why cathedrals do this to me -- it certainly has nothing to do with the Catholic faith. I suppose that they have been a big part of my life this past year . . . but it is more than mere association. Something about the smell of old stone, and the stories of people searching for whatever “it” is.

Today I sidetracked for a few hours to the Castillo Loarre, and boy am I glad that I did. You know that part in video games or fantasy movies where they stay in some castle in the clouds? That place exists, and I’ve been there.

The oldest parts of the castle date from the 10th century, constructed during the beginning of the Moorish expulsion. It is Romanic in style, and huge – visible for kilometers. The keep sits high in the Sierra de Loarre, perched atop a stone outcropping that juts from the South side of the mountains. Besides the keep (accessible only by drawbridge from the Queen’s tower) there are a cluster of other buildings, a huge basilica built a few hundred years later, and a massive curtain wall stretching for hundreds of meters along the exposed side of the hillside (the bit that isn’t sheer cliff, that is). Nearly everything is intact.

I didn’t realize how much of the older castles must have been made of wood. The curtain wall has no rampart – instead, there are holes for timbers to be inserted into the wall in order to support a walkway. The same is true of the towers and many of the lesser buildings inside the castle – all wooden floors. All that’s left of them is the stone ledgework that anchored them, of course.

I didn’t realize until I was most of the way up the mountain (elevation 1080m.) that the view was going to be so breathtaking. Looking out from the castle, I could see that all of Aragón was covered in white clouds. They were below the level of the castle – the only land visible was the ridgeline of the Sierra de Loarra and a few little islands of land sticking up here and there in the distance. The castle sat on the edge of an endless sea of brilliant white . . . I could see nothing but rolling mist for 100, 200, maybe more kilometers. It went straight out to the horizon until you couldn’t tell where clouds met sky. There was one place in particular – the queen’s lookout, a portal facing South into Aragón – where I could see a sheer drop down the cliff into the frothy white mist below.


I stopped by the bar here in Sarsamarcuello to pick up the keys to the Albergue, get a cup of coffee, and send my weekly “I’m not dead” email to mom (the bars do everything in these little towns). At first I was the only one there besides the perennially drowsy barmaid, but as I sipped some coffee people began to come in start moving chairs and tables around. “El teatro, aquí,” (the theater, here) explained the barmaid, as if she was talking to a retarded child.

I dropped off my stuff at the albergue, got a quick freezing shower (Jesus, Hornblower, how do you do it?) and headed back over. The place was arranged with rough rows of seats and was packed with more than half of the town’s 150 inhabitants. It was standing room only for the pilgrim, but I didn’t mind too much.

Soon after I arrived, they started. The lights went off except for a small “campfire.” It was a two man show, and they were both dressed as hobos of indeterminate era. One sat by the fire playing a small mandolin, backing the other in his monologues. I understood very little, but I figured out that it was a collection of stories about shipwrecks and (I think) how they followed the character’s family. The story about his mother and the sinking of the Titanic was told in surprising detail, along with the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis.

It felt like the scene in Return of the Jedi where C-3PO is describing the rebellion to the ewoks.

The texture was very powerful. The main illumination was a gas camping lantern, set on the table in front of the main actor. He would turn it down for a few moments between stories or when he changed characters (my favorite was the old sea captain who told the story about cannibalism). It was also a play of great prop usage – particularly the stick that the sea captain kept mindlessly sharpening through the story (you can imagine how the knife figured into things).

And it was a powerful vibe. All the adults, sitting and rolling cigarette after cigarette as the man told stories of disaster, humor, and general woe. His face was lit only by the lantern, and the harsh dark shadows that it threw across his features helped set the somber tone of the narrative. The windows fogged as the play went on, humid with the breath of collected people.

It was almost a two hour performance. My ears are getting better – I can start to pick out more words, I just don’t know what they mean.


A bit of graffiti I keep finding on signs pointing to Riglos:

“Inductos y viajeros haces con el Jacobeo y danzar con yoga k – Dr. K.”

Dunno what it means – The Jacobean path is another name for the camino, and there’s something about traveling and dancing in there, but the rest was too smudged.

The End of Notebook 1

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 8

Today was likely my last day in the Caribbean for the forseeable future.

We were docked in Grand Turk, an island that is known for being a possible landing point for Columbus when he "discovered" the Americas, as well as the nearest point to the splashdown of the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule containing John Glenn. The ship was the tallest point visible -- we were docked at a pier within a hundred meters of land. The water in Grand Turk is so clear that not only can one see the keel of the Crystal Symphony, but one can see the shadow that it leaves upon the sand beneath; it makes one feel as if the ship (which weighs tens of thousands of tons) is flying through space -- a particularly odd feeling when you realize that it contains your home, gym, workplace, recreational areas, and nearly every other part of your life. We could have swum out to the ship from the beach -- Grand Turk truly is a diver's and snorkeler's paradise.

I took a long walk away from the ship, people, and everything else today. The Grand Turk pier deposits one right among a series of tourist traps -- the beach stretchs to the left, towards the Margaritaville restaurant (the largest building on Grand Turk besides the ships themselves) and so I headed right instead. After circling round a little fence I was able to follow the beach for quite some distance, passing a series of abandoned cinderblock buildings covered in graffiti, a stable, and finally reaching a coral rock outcropping before having to return to the ship. The rock has been eroded in strange ways -- a large outcropping protrudes from the cliff face, hanging precariously in wait of some force strong enough to dislodge it. I climbed part of the way up, but the coral is too sharp and would have cut my feet and hands if I had kept going.

I needed the walk. Fifteen minutes from the leaving the ship, the only things I could hear were the waves, the wind, and my own footsteps. Time does funny things when you get out beyond the shops, commercial beaches, and canned music . . . a larger consciousness lives out beyond the tourist zone, a mind that exists day in and day out without any concept of the passage of time. Here, the waves have always broken against the rock, and the wind has always blown from the ocean onto land, and the petty concerns of humanity matter little compared to the constant roar of the ocean. The quality of the Caribbean sun is nearly impossible to describe -- the island shimmers with heat. Everything is white and blinding without some sort of eye protection -- a shattering contrast to the vivid starscape that is visible from the regions near the equator at night. Soft white coral sand underfoot, blinding white sun overhead, and everywhere the sound of the ocean -- this was my day on Grand Turk.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Camino Entry 15

(Day 15 continued)
I managed to get good and lost today. There was a weird intersection of roads in the middle of some fields that was signed in an odd fashion . . . I took what I thought was the correct way and was totally wrong. I found myself at an old firebreak, and the guide mentioned a firebreak so I followed it, again in the wrong direction. Just as I was about to give up a tractor drove past on the road I’d been looking for; it was hidden in the brush not 50 yards from where I was standing. I took the road around to Bolea, turning an easy 20km day into a long, 25km cross country day.

But the past two days have been days of beautiful, perfect country roads. Even when lost I found myself in places so beautiful. At one point I was following a country road (which stretched for kilometers in each direction) with the mountains on my right partially visible above through the mist while on the left a huge empty field swept up the side of the mesa. It was dotted with islands of unplowed earth, each dominated by a single tree that I knew must be massive but from my distance looked miniature. I actually thought about sleeping there, snug in the dry grass amongst a sea of brown earth, but not tonight. It’s going to be a cold one.

As the elevation increases, the land opens up. It feels bigger somehow. Since yesterday the farms are bigger and the landscape more remote. Maybe the proximity of the mountains helps . . . I saw frost this morning. Elevation 700m and climbing, according to my guidebook.

I’m spending the night in an odd little albergue. The friendly lady I talked to at the edge of town (who is hosting a twelve year old Ukranian orphan) told me to ask at the Bar Rufino; the brusque barman gave me the keys (I think the albergue takes business from his Casa Rural upstairs) to a strange set of rooms off of the local elementary school gymnasium. The kitchen and baths are downstairs and the beds are up, but they’re connected by a passage that is open to (but separate from) the gym floor. I’m listening to basketball practice right now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

College, or, A Bone to Pick

Many people have a bone to pick with Mitt Romney. Here’s mine:

“. . . Don’t just go to the one that has the highest price. Go to one that
has a little lower price where you can get a good education.”

And where exactly, Mr. Romney, would that be?

I can sum up the problem with his argument in one graph. Compare the rate of growth of tuition and median household income.

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. From 1987 until 2007, the cost of going to college has increased by four times the rate of inflation, and trust me – it’s not slowing down any time soon. Let’s take a look at what this is actually costing families, in terms of percentage of total family income.

Take a closer look. The average cost of attendance actually exceeds the total family income of the lowest income bracket. And in case you’re looking at these numbers and saying, “That’s not what college costs! I bet those averages are overstated!” I pulled the latest tuition numbers from my own alma mater, Michigan State (numbers include 15 credits tuition, room and board, and assorted other fees).

In-State Freshmen, Total for two semesters: $21,026
Non-Michigan Freshmen, Total for two semesters: $39,896
International Freshmen, Total for two semesters: $44,827

And these numbers go up once you become an upperclassman, as upperclassmen credits are more expensive. Why? Who knows?

Keep in mind that this is not a private school, and it is not the academic powerhouse that the neighboring University of Michigan is. It is supposed to be a place where you can go and get a solid, no-frills undergraduate education, either as a foundation for further study or as a decent degree in its own right. This is the school Romney refers to when he says, “. . . to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education.”

And yet a school like MSU still costs nearly three-quarters of the total household income of families in the lowest income bracket, even after need based grants. For those families earning between 54,000 and 80,000 dollars a year, that’s still nearly a quarter of the family’s income (after grants!).

Romney wants us to receive a good education from a cheap school. Frankly, that place doesn’t exist anymore, and only someone totally out of touch with the state of higher education in this country could fail to realize that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Camino Entry 14

Day 14, December 8th, 2012
272.5km completed

Expenses, Day 14
Kabob: 7.50
Fruit: .83
Bread and cheese: 4.50
Albergue donation: 5.00
Total: 17.83
Trip Total 352.99

Day 15, December 9th, 2012
305.4km completed

Whew, I just threw down a pair of 30+ kilometer days. It’s nice to know that I can do it, but I’m glad for a short day today (and so is my body). Only 22.1 km to Bolea.

Huesca is a nice city. At 48,000 people it feels massive; I am in for some culture shock when I get home. It is nice to know that there are still some small places left in the world – places with no internet and no McDonald’s.

I struggled with hunger yesterday. I was so tired the day before that I forgot to provision . . . and due to the holiday, all the shops were closed. Still, I had a little cheese and a carrot left over, and then mid-afternoon a nice guy in Fañanás bought me a cup of coffee and the remains of a stale sweet cake. Something about that cake must have been magic because it carried me the remaining 15km to Huesca without a problem.

The albergue here in Huesca is another palace . . . I think Aragón is trying to spoil me. Again, I’m right behind the school group that last night’s hospitalero mentioned – the chaperones left me another half bottle of wine, but I decided against it this time. There was a fridge full of cold cuts and bread, though . . . mmm . . .

It’s funny what the body wants after two weeks on the road. I had no interest in the sponge cake, but I could’ve drunk a gallon of the fruit juice.

I took a look at the guest book. It looks like the place is brand new; just opened this year. I may be the first American to stay here. I couldn’t read many of the messages, but the intent was clear – lots of love and well-wishes. It’s nice to hear some echoes of my fellow pilgrims. I hope to actually meet another one someday – I was lucky to run into Martin, but since then there has been no one!

The albergue is located on the edge of town as you enter Huesca from the East. This has led to some conflicts of signage as the Camino has been rerouted to pass by the albergue. There are yellow arrows crossed out in yellow paint, and then more yellow arrows underneath in different directions. The new arrows seemed to be going backwards, and so I ignored them and headed into town (passing right by the albergue!). Eventually I arrived at the tourist office and the guy behind the front desk showed me my mistake – it was a half an hour’s walk back! That’s alright, though, as I got a chance to see Huesca on a holiday night and the man at the tourist office had to call someone to unlock the albergue anyway.

This experience has led to a new Camino rule, though – number four, I believe.

1. Allow others to be generous.
2. No Pilgrim is alone.
3. Let your feet do the walking.
4. The arrows are always right (but that doesn’t mean you should always follow them).

Expenses, Day 15
Pastries: 2.40
Albergue Donation: 5.00
Total: 7.40
Trip Total: 360.39

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Camino Entry 13

Day 13, December 7th, 2011
240.2km completed

Expenses, Day 13
Pastries: 1.00
Provisions: 6.13
Beer at the Meridian Bar: 1.40
Donation to Albergue: 10.00
Total: 18.53
Trip Total: 335.16

I’m writing this from the couch at my albergue. That’s right, the couch. Pertusa, pop. 147, has (for some reason) the nicest albergue in the history of albergues.

Let’s talk about luxuries for a second:

1. Heat
2. Hot Water
3. Shower
4. Two bunkrooms
5. Balcony
6. Living room (with TV)
7. Kitchen and dining area
8. A washing machine!!

I’m letting it go to work on all of my travel gear right now, going commando with my shorts (since apparently I only brought one pair of underwear). The extra 12km were worth it, although my feet may disagree.

Today also marks (roughly) my first quarter of the camino! Given my luxurious surroundings, I decided to have a little feast . . . there was even a third of a bottle of wine left in the fridge. I gave toasts to various people, places, and the camino itself as the alcohol settled in.

I passed through Berbegal today, the hilltop city visible yesterday from Castillo Monzón. It is a village of only 467 people, but it had a store so I provisioned. I have everything I need except bread . . . and tomorrow is some sort of holiday so I may have to go without. The town has the unusual distinction of being on the same point of longitude as Greenwich, England. I had a beer at the Meridian bar, an establishment that sits astride the line. Other than a large clock, it is fairly unremarkable.

A pushy local wanted to show me the view from the top of the church. Apparently you can see 82 towns from the steeple. I was going to take him up on it, but no one had the key. The day was absolutely clear, the Pyrenees amazing in their fierce majesty (glad I don’t have to cross those!). The local guy was a bit too excited to see me, and from the way he got no respect from anyone else in town (and how no one could find the key all of a sudden in a town of 467 people) I can tell he is being ostracized a bit. There is a lesson here, I just don’t know what it is . . . it was a weird situation, and I’m glad I didn’t spend the night there.

I estimate that I could see for 50 or 60km from Berbegal, just like Castillo Monzón. The castle was amazing – built by the Moors in the 9th century, it became a Templar stronghold when the order was founded. I wonder how many pilgrims have seen that fortress on the hill over the centuries and felt relief, knowing that here was a place safe for travelers, patrolled against thieves and highwaymen. What an idea the Templars had . . . to live, train, pray, fight, and die with your brothers, all in service of those things that are good in the world. Things are not so clear cut now as they were then . . . although perhaps things were confusing then as well, and we have impressed clarity upon them in retrospect. Perhaps such organizations devoted to militant good only arise in times of great chaos (in which case I’m glad they don’t exist now), and perhaps they always become corrupted as the Templars did.

Christ! I have a long way to go still to Santiago. Spain is big – the views from the castle yesterday and Berbegal today have shown me that much.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 7

Yesterday I visited the Cristo Redentor, a huge statue of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks Rio de Janeiro from Corcovado Mountain ("The Hunchback"). If there is any symbol that represents Rio to the world, it is the Cristo Redentor.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

You can see the rectangular stands of the sambadromo here:

JC is big.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Charlie Chaplin and Super Tuesday

The Super Tuesday coverage has been blasting from televisions on the ship all day. Frankly, I'm pretty sick of listening to any of the candidates . . . and so the following is my little effort to counteract the fear-mongering and garbage that I've been listening to all day.

I've turned to a strange little movie by Charlie Chaplin called "The Great Dictator" that I first discovered at a hostel in Barcelona. Released in 1940, Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is bamboozled into become the figurehead for the Nazi state. He satirizes Hitler's rise to power, culminating in the famous speech at the end of movie that you can find here:

Please enjoy -- I find it an antidote to more and more of the political discourse these days.

Also, yesterday marked one year since I left home to work on ships. Happy Birthday, blog!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Camino Entry 12

Day 12, December 6th, 2012
219.6km completed

Expenses, Day 6
Chocolate and Churros (mmm): 3.00
Cheese and Baguette: 3.38
Castillo Monzón Entry + postcards: 3.80
Monster Baguette: 1.10
Pensión La Manchega: 15.00
Total: 23.28
Trip Total: 316.63

Today’s lesson is that things open very late in rural Spain. Another short day, but the first 20km or so were totally without towns of any sort and so I needed to provision here in Tamarite. The plan was to get up early, get bread and cheese, and get on the road.
I didn’t count on the fact that the only places to get food don’t open until 10am here. The bakers didn’t even start today’s bread until 9am. There’s three hours of sunlight (9 or 10km) lost right there. If I was at any other stage of my life, it would be perfect.

I said three hours lost, but I wouldn’t say wasted. There is a chocolateria open early, where I got chocolate and churros . . . the best so far in Spain. It makes up for no pizza last night. I lost a chance to get a day ahead, but I’m not behind and so it’s fine. My schedule puts me in Santiago on January 16th with no rest days, so I may even get to Finisterra. No need to rush; what would I do with a bunch of extra days anyway? Stew in the hostel in Barcelona?


I’m trying to get a room right now at a pension in Monzón, La Manchega. I found the place, but after ringing the bell twice one of the guests? tenants? came out to tell me to go ask at the bar on the corner for the owner.

The bar is named “La Tropicál” and is suitably warm and humid inside; the tap sweats under cheap fluorescent lighting. Some young people are here, about my age, playing darts and doing crosswords while the old guys stick to cards and cigars. Everyone is a regular but me – the spunky barmaid goes to each in turn with pet names and a kiss on the cheek. She called the landlady for me, thank goodness.

Lots to write about Castillo Monzón and the templar, but tomorrow

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Camino Entry 11

Day 11, December 5th, 2011
198.1km completed

Windy today, but clear and fairly warm. Still following dirt agricultural roads, but the land is getting more dry and rocky. The border between Aragón and Cataluña is marked by a canal – Aragón and Cataluña are the larger areas, while the smaller provinces I moved from where Lleida to Huesca.

Regardless, adios Cataluña. See you soon.

Short day today; 21.5km, because tomorrow I go 20km with no stops at all. I’m in the first city that I’ve seen in Aragón, Tamarite de Litera. I arrived during siesta – the blowing wind, deserted main street, and passing tumbleweeds (not making this up) make me feel like I was in an old Western (a fitting setting for the “Jin” (Samurai Champloo) persona I adopted for a while earlier today). Now I’m in a café where old Westerns are playing on TV, dubbed into Spanish, and so the trend continues.

This is what all the old guys do during siesta – come here, drink coffee or beer, play cards, and shoot the shit. We should adopt siesta back home. Interesting that they keep it even in winter (invierno).

Expenses, Day 11

Baguette and Pastries: 2.96
Coffee: 1.30
Municipal Albergue (abandoned dorm): 10.00 donation
Fruits and Veggies: 1.37
Cashews and Chocolate: 3.20
Green Tea: 1.30
Total: 20.12
Trip Total: 293.35

My favorite example of political graffiti here so far is “Vota aki” (vote here) painted on trash cans, with an arrow pointing to the hole.


All right, Tamarite, you have impressed me. The local ayuntamiento (town government) offers shelter to pilgrims free of charge – all I had to do was walk into the city hall and mention that I was a pilgrim. Stamp on the credential, and the cop (one of two here in Tamarite de Litera) even gave me a ride over to the building; I can now say that I’ve been in a cop car in Spain.

The shelter is an abandoned dorm. Well, semi-abandoned, as some groups are using space on the third floor, but I pretty much have the place to myself. The electricity and water are on, but many of the lights don’t work and the furnace is turned off. Luckily there is a little electric heater in the pilgrim quarters, but no hot water for a shower. I may be from Michigan, but an ice-cold shower in an abandoned dorm bathroom is a little too cold for me.

Still, it is certainly the LARGEST shelter I’ve had so far. Three floors all to myself. I’m in an eight-bed room, and there are at least two more like it on this floor. Pilgrim graffiti abounds, including a series of customized stickers that two guys had made that all say “Beber y luchar siempre . . .” (Drink and Fight always?) with them in goofy poses. I hope it was still the 80’s when they were wearing those cut-off jeans short-shorts and canvas fanny-packs.

I have renamed the building “Casa McWilliams” for the night. Now I go in search of pizza. If I find it, Tamarite is assured a place at the top of the pilgrim leaderboard, at least for now.


No pizza, but my brother would appreciate the Spanish game show on television right now in the tea house. When someone is eliminated, they’re actually dropped through a trap door in the floor! Awesome.

Also, I was thinking – all this talk about how America doesn’t produce anything. One of our biggest exports is pop culture . . . another reason why people shouldn’t discount the economic impact of arts funding.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 6

March 3rd, 2012

Buenos Aires, the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere . . .

My interest in Buenos Aires was first sparked two summers ago when I was persuaded to take a tango class with a friend in Ann Arbor. Tango is a dance between couples, and can be either a social dance (Argentine style) or an artistic/competitive one (American, International, and Ballroom tango -- there are significant stylistic differences between the two approaches). I found myself drawn in by the passionate, melancholy music and by the improvised dance itself – the intimate embrace combined with the risk of total catastrophe is an exhilarating experience, particularly in a culture like ours that avoids physical contact of any kind. Buenos Aires is the birthplace of tango, and when I found out that we had an overnight stay I was excited to go see tango danced in its natural habitat.

There are two main ways to see tango in Buenos Aires. The first option is to go see a tango show. There are many venues for such shows, all usually combining a meal, drinks, and dancing. There is no audience participation – your only job is to soak up the food and drink while the dancers and orchestra provide the evening’s entertainment. These shows are usually geared towards tourists, and range from the gaudy “Senor Tango,” which seats hundreds of people and features a chorus line, to tiny, intimate venues with four or five tables. They can be quite pricey, but usually feature excellent ballroom tango, with complicated pre-choreographed routines and athletic lifts, kicks, and such.

The other way is to go to a milonga. A milonga is a social event where people come to dance in the Argentine style – a subtle, improvised dance more suited to crowded dance floors. Milongas can vary widely in style, music, venue, clientele, and degree of formality. It is estimated that in Buenos Aires there are anywhere between fifteen and twenty milongas each night, most of them running well past three in the morning. There are a well-defined set of social rules that govern milongas – I could go on about the mechanics of tango, but for those who would like to know more I point towards google.

The difference between the two approaches is focus. In performance tango, the energy is focused outward towards the audience, while in social tango the energy is focused inwards into the connection between dancers. The type I studied in Ann Arbor was social tango, the more intimate of the two, and so I decided to research milongas instead of tagging along with my shipmates to a show (I haven’t traveled all the way to the Southern Hemisphere just to see some damn Disney tango!).

After finishing work, I got my maps together and set off into the city. It was a perfect evening – cooler after the heat of the day, with a bit of a breeze off of the ocean and just enough humidity to smell like summer. In most ports it is something of an adventure getting from the industrial area into the city proper by foot, and Buenos Aires is no exception. Widespread poverty stalks Buenos Aires just as with all cities in South America, and on my way to the train station I passed through one of the transitional zones. It was an odd little collision of worlds – on one side of the boulevard was a wide park with the English clock tower, while on the other side streets ran away into a shanty town where mountains of white garbage bags stood piled against walls. Along the sidewalks (and at some points integrated into the train and bus stations) was a long open-air market where people of all incomes mingled among racks of cheap handbags and kabob stands. It was a strange place – not quite anywhere, but not nowhere, either. I was reminded of the body of water Buenos Aires is located on, the Rio de la Plata, and how it is neither an ocean nor a river. Perhaps this is the urban equivalent.

Speaking of streets, Buenos Aires is a city of massive boulevards. They can be fourteen, sixteen, even eighteen lanes wide. I used to think that I liked large boulevards . . . but after two hours in Buenos Aires and I have changed my mind. They look pretty and carry huge loads of traffic, but from a pedestrian’s standpoint they are a pain. Imagine the length of a crosswalk when you’ve got to get across eighteen lanes of traffic! I am lucky to be young and in good shape, because there were a few instances where I found myself playing real-life frogger during my exploration of Buenos Aires.

Despite the various hazards to life and limb, I made it safely to the more pedestrian-friendly urban center. Here the Casa Rosada is located, where Eva Perón made her famous speeches to the people of Argentina. A short walk away from the water is the Plaza de Independencia, where a huge obelisk has been built(reminiscent of the Washington monument in D.C.). I stopped for a quick bite at a dollar pizza joint (four pesos) before reaching my first destination of the night, a milonga at La Confiteria Ideal.

I stopped for a moment outside. So far, Buenos Aires had been much like any other large city that I’ve visited in the past twenty three years or so. La Confiteria Ideal was the first thing I’d seen to set the city apart. An ornate marble front bordered the little side street it was located on. Behind dark wooden doors and plate glass windows I could see an elegant dining room, with cloth napkins folded up into flowers on each table and ceiling fans spinning lazy circles above. A dark-haired waiter stood outside, sleeves rolled up and smoking a cigarette. The big French doors on the second story veranda were open, and from within I could hear the sounds of music . . . I headed inside.

The interior was just as rich as the exterior was. A stone staircase twisted around the wrought iron elevator cage, depositing me at the head of a long room. Warm colored stone and wood were everywhere, reminding me of the strange café in Santiago de Compostela where I ate with the Koreans (only a month and a half ago!). Tables, draped in red and black, surrounded the floor in little groups. I was early (it was only midnight, after all) and got a spot in the front row.

I stayed planted there for a few hours, sipping red wine and enjoying the music. The dancers were of various skills and ages, but all moved smoothly and comfortably. The music itself was exactly what I was looking for – old school tango from the thirties and forties. The crowd was roughly half and half foreigners and locals, judging by the mixture of languages I could hear, but I’ve heard there is a large expatriate population in Buenos Aires and so more of them may be locals than I thought.

After an hour or so the floor was cleared and an exceptionally good couple (professionals – they were here with their students, I believe) danced a tanda (set of three to five songs) to wild applause. “Si, senor!” “Otra, otra!” “Bravo!” I stayed there through the next several tandas until a different couple was featured, a couple that I enjoyed watching much less – I took this a sign to move on, as I still had lots to do. One night in Buenos Aires is hardly sufficient.

Half an hour’s walk later, I arrived at a converted warehouse that is known as “La Catedral.” The club was on the second floor – I paid for my ticket at the folding table set up in the entry way and climbed the chipped tile stairs towards the music.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The central room of the warehouse had become the club, and was kept in near darkness except for a few strings of lights hung from wall to wall. The offices surrounding this space are filled with beaten leather couches and low tables where people come to smoke and relax a bit. A bar stretched along the entire opposite wall. I paid for what I thought was a glass of wine and received the entire bottle – after I asked, the bartender gave me a glass as well. Stumbling to an empty table in the dark, I settled in to watch the show.

It was a much younger crowd at La Catedral, and as a consequence the rules of milonga were more relaxed. People got up or sat down in the middle of tandas, wore jeans and T-shirts, and were teaching each other steps at the edges of the dance floor. Looking for a bit of assistance in consuming the entire bottle of wine I’d found myself in possession of, I made friends with another American, two Irish brothers, and a pair of Chilean guys who were quite excited to find out that I knew their country’s cheer (“C-H-I! L-E! Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!”).

The style of dance was less reserved here as well. Perhaps it was just a function of the advancing hour, increasing inebriation, or lowered lighting, but people were dancing with much less restraint. I finally left at almost four thirty in the morning, and they showed no signs of stopping. A few guys I’d seen dancing earlier had acquired instruments, and as I passed them on the stairs they were playing tangos with two guitars and a chromatic harmonica.

Climbing the gangway at six in the morning, I stopped for a moment to admire the glow of the advancing sunrise. Finally, a city that keeps the same hours I do . . .

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Poem of the Day

I recently learned that Hermann Hesse, author of "Siddhartha" and winner of the pulitzer prize for literature in 1946, was also a poet. Here is one of my favorites of his so far:

"Love Song"
Hermann Hesse

I wish I were a flower,
And you were just walking by,
And picked me as your own,
And held me captive in your hand.

Or I wish I were red wine,
And you would drink my sweetness,
And take me deep inside yourself,
Both you and I would be healed.