Barcelona

The window is open and the barest of sea breezes perfectly complements the warmth of the summer night.

My fiance is playing guitar and singing a few feet away, perched upon faintly purple sheets provided by Ines, the owner of this quaint and lovely apartment on Carrer Bilbao.

The sounds of conversation drift through the window. I peer over the edge and see tables filled with cervesas and tapas, the seats haphazardly placed near tables, like tiny metal pieces drawn to magnets.

The green leaves of a a tree approach our window ~ maybe in a few years someone will have to cut off a branch to keep the tree in check. When it rains or is especially breezy I can hear the whispering, “shhh-shhh” sounds the leaves make.

I can smell patatas bravas and my stomach rumbles, but although locals eat this late (it’s nearly midnight) my body would protest.

I don’t normally like cities ~ I am intimidated by them. Large numbers of people make me feel uncomfortable. Yet I have loved being here, getting lost in the Gothic Quarter, walking until my ankles hurt and I’m become deeply annoyed at the way my sandals slip off my feet just a tiny bit with every step, until my eyes feel heavy and I am tempted into a cafe by the scent of coffee and somewhat-gaudy photos of croissants pasted on the doors.

I love walks to the small fruit and vegetable markets. In the morning-time these are full of little old women wheeling cloth grocery carts behind them, sometimes with husbands in tow. I once saw an old woman accept her bag of fruit from a cashier ~ she was startled by the weight of the fruit and fumbled the bag, exclaiming. She caught the bag, though, and looked up at me. We both burst into laughter.

David and I have a favorite cafe called “Tio Bigotes” which means “uncle mustaches” and is probably named so because of the mustache-shaped empanadas sold there. The woman who works there helps me with my Spanish and I give her English words when she asks ~ between this and a heavy reliance on miming, we communicate. As soon as we walk in (after the customary “Que tal?” “Bien, y tu?” “Bien.”) she smiles and asks if I want the empanada con albahaca (with basil). She refills David’s zumo de naranja, bringing over more of the fresh-squeezed juice in a small metal pitcher without charging for the extra cup.

Rachel (my professor at Rollins College) and I have spent many of our mornings in Raval, a neighborhood only 20 minutes of Metro time away from our own barrio, which is Poblenou. Our approach to our research has been to introduce ourselves at organizations working with migrants and to ask if we can speak with people, and this has worked startlingly well. We have spent hours with the most incredible, passionate, motivated, and intelligent women as they explain their work to us and what life is like for immigrants in Barcelona.

Rachel and I found a Moroccan cafe and as part of our research (and ultimate happiness) we’ve returned there often for mint tea and Moroccan treats. We’ve been back for dinner with Rachel’s kids and David, and then again with wonderful people we met during our research and more of Rachel’s family. Raval has begun to feel comfortable and familiar in a way you can trust a place to feel once you have walked its streets a certain number of times.

Last weekend David and I took a two-hour trip to Montserrat, a mountain which hosts a basilica just outside of Barcelona. We chose to hike the mountain instead of take the small train up, and spent 1.5 hours of pure bliss sweating our way up the sun-soaked path. We sat and stared at the vastness of the city from the height of the basilica. We could see the Mediterranean Ocean in the distance, delineating where Barcelona city was and where, approximately, our neighborhood lay. We walked into the monastery and sat in the back pews, absorbing the feeling of time inlaid in the stones and stained glass.

I’ve spent time reading, finishing Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Each of these books deserve more than any explanation of their power that I can possibly offer. The first is perhaps about pain and friendship, the second about adaption, the third about what memory means for love. Each, actually, speaks of love. Now I’m reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Hosseini, which I should have read a long time ago.

David and I have brought our instruments to the beach, walking only a few minutes through the deepening evening to a rocky promontory near Mar Bella. I watched waves crash against the stones and we sang.

The gelato is beyond description.

Ines, who is hosting our Airbnb apartment, has slowly become our friend. Last night she saw me and David struggling with peeling and cutting potatoes for our Spanish tortilla and took it upon herself to guide us through the process, helping us dice the vegetables, whisk the eggs, and make it all into the tortilla on medium-high heat in a saucepan. Her dog, Linda (who is the wifi’s namesake), stuck her nose in David’s lap as we ate, her liquid eyes staring, unblinking, at him as he ate.

Earlier today, David and I found a cafe with board games and, excited, walked in. We found two game to play and bought our drinks then sat down and opened the boxes. Everything was in Spanish, a problem we hadn’t thought about. We considered Google Translate, but each card had writing on it. I scanned the cafe’s shelves for Scrabble (a great go-to game for international game-playing locations) but no luck. It was absolutely hilarious. We ended up outside the cafe on those lovely benches I mentioned earlier, me reading and David resting with the breeze sending dried leaves floating our way.

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Whoops wrong Barcelona

I left Cinque Terre with a feeling of peace ~ I’d spent the day and a half I had there mostly in the sea, swimming between rocks with Katie. I was sad to leave Katie, but I felt ready and excited to begin research in Spain.

My first train was to a station only 7 minutes away, then I caught another to Rome. On this train I sat next to Maria, who befriended me through offering me dried cheese chips. I think she did so because I finished my John Irving book and teared up… when I got to the part in Salam Neighbor where a Syrian woman recounts her son’s death, I really cried and Maria went ahead and handed me the entire box of cheese chips.

When we reached Rome, Maria completely took me under her wing. She tried to help me find the train to Barcelona but both of us were confused that there wasn’t a train to Spain. “International terminal…” she said, and asked a conductor. He pointed us toward a train (not in the international terminal, it turned out) which had a different name on it ~ I thought to myself that perhaps Barcelona was just one of the stops on the way to this ending point. Maria left me with a kind, “Good luck!”

I walked onto the train and quickly found my cabin. I’d booked a sleeper car for only women, and I hopped up onto my top bunk. I heard a man shouting outside, and after a few minutes of this I got down to check out what was happening. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. An older Italian couple were standing outside the cabin to my right, and the man motioned to his head. “He is not healthy,” he said. We started talking and it turned out that the woman, who spoke no English but some French so I could understand a bit, had family in Alabama. I told them my family is from the same state and he said, “Small world!” The more I meet people on my travels, the more evident the truth of this becomes.

The couple, like Maria, decided they would be responsible for my safety. They made sure I was alright and kept checking in on me throughout the journey. When a woman and her young son entered my cabin, the man made sure we were able to communicate. I immediately liked the woman, whose name I thought I heard to be Sicilia ~ regardless, when she said Sicilia I said Sara. Her son’s name was Lorenzo. We talked for a while, although it was hard to communicate with our language barrier, then we all went to sleep.

I woke up to the train stopped before a blue, sparkling ocean. The woman explained to me that our train was to get on a ferry ~ why a ferry, I thought to myself, to get to Barcelona? I decided to trust the process. We took turns watching each other’s belongings and going out onto the ferry for coffee. When we returned to the cabin, we chatted amiably over the drinks as the train exited the ferry and continued on its way.

Just a few minutes away from our destination, the woman showed me a photo of her favorite place on Earth, which looked to be an island. I wasn’t sure where it was, since neither of us spoke much of the other’s language. It looked beautiful ~ I was sure I’d seen it before. It looked like that island off the coast of Italy.

The woman pointed out the different towns she’d been to. She showed me a music group in one town and told me that she’d message me on Facebook so we could go together! Then, she pointed to one of the towns and said “Barcelona.” My heart stopped. The world slowed. My brain froze.

What I realized in the subsequent 10 seconds: the woman’s name wasn’t Sicilia. We were headed to Sicilia, which I realized with a sense of doom was the Italian name for Sicily. I wasn’t 20 minutes away from Barcelona, Spain, I was 11 hours further from my intended destination than I had been before, in Cinque Terre.

I took a breath, stood up, and walked to the windows of the train. Outside the ocean stretched wide and welcoming. I saw an enormous castle pass quickly and asked the woman ~ Lena (which I learned when we became Facebook friends ~ about it and she said it’s a great place to get beers.

Okay. Ocean, castles, beers. I’d be alright.

I left Lena and Lorenzo (Lorenzo, with his mischievous grin, said “bye!” probably 30 times as I was leaving the train, following me as I walked out the cabin and to the door) and entered Barcellona, Sicily. It was hot and I was carrying all of my traveling things, but I felt invigorated. Adrenaline definitely helped. I walked through the train station and outside. I could just walk into the mountains, I thought to myself, perhaps ask people how to get to that mountain! I had a tent, after all. But wait, I have to get to the Spanish Barcelona. I needed to figure out a plan.

I had asked Lena, as casually as I could manage, if there was an airport in Sicily. She showed me on Google the name of the airport ~ it was in Catania. I checked the machine for a ticket to Catania ~ a train was leaving in 4 minutes!! I hurriedly bought the ticket, a bit disappointed I wouldn’t see more of this beautiful Sicilian town but alright with sacrificing in order to be within reach of the airport. I needed to begin my research and meet Dr. Newcomb, my professor.

I sprinted to the tracks as soon as my tickets printed and breathlessly asked the people there which platform I should be on. The other one! I was told, and I ran underneath the track to the other side. Is this the right side?! I asked a group of older Italian men. They grabbed my tickets and looked at them, each leaning in to see. They spoke in rapid Italian to each other, then handed one of my tickets to a young man nearby, who immediately snatched it and sprinted away. Aw, shoot, I though. There goes that plan. “Stamp!” One older man said, and I realized I’d stamped the wrong ticket (you have to stamp them at the station you’re leaving, and I’d stamped the one for my 2nd train).

The young man returned quickly, out of breath, and handed me my ticket. The train would be 15 minutes late so he needn’t have hurried, but I was thankful regardless. The men chatted amongst themselves as we waited for the train, and I watched dozens of small birds swooping in the sky, to sometimes fly underneath the ceiling of the station. I realized that there were bubbles in the concrete ceiling which were actually nests, and that these birds were feeding their babies! I watched for a while, in awe.

The men made certain I got on the train and found my seat. I had only a short ride before having to board my next train.

A couple of minutes into the ride, two young women walked on. One of them was supposed to sit on the other side of the aisle from me but a group of men were in those seats ~ I let the woman who had that seat sit in mine, because I had the window and was about to leave anyway. We struck up a conversation which quickly surprised me with its comfortability ~ it was incredibly pleasant to simply sit and chat. Justina, one of the women, had been living in Catania and working and she gave me advice for my time there ~ in return, I passed on my John Irving novel with advice for traveling in Albania written in the front cover.

My next train was over 2 hours, and I read until I passed out in the seat.

I have to be brief because I should board my plane to the Spanish Barcelona soon ~ I’m in the airport in Cologne, Germany. To quickly sum up my experience in Catania:

I walked around all day with my trekking bag and backpack. I found museums, and rooftops, and a fish market and coffee. I meant to buy a ticket out that night but by the time I got wifi, the ticket was sold out. I found a wonderful hostel and met incredible people. I walked to the beach (only half an hour away), watched the sun touch the water, then walked back. I had wine on the hostel’s rooftop bar with women in my hostel room. We chatted for hours, and I realized yet again how much meaning life has in connections with people.

When I woke up to catch the bus for my flight this morning, one woman I met, Tia Maria, was also awake. As I rushed out, coffee in hand, she gave me a bag of peaches she’d bought for me from a market in Catania. “Best of luck,” she said. Kindness is everything.

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Walking, plants, people I’ll always remember… Albania.

We left for Valbone with barely a clue as to what we were doing. We had a new travel partner though, Agustín, who we met at Mi Casa es Tu Casa in Shkoder (aka the best hostel ever with the cutest dog, Ziggy Stardust).

1st mode of transportation: a minibus filled with travelers and a few Albanians headed for a funeral. When we dropped them off in a village, our driver began playing music, explaining, “No music for a funeral.” We bumped on toward Konan lake and our ferry.

2nd mode of transportation: the ferry! We sat around for a few minutes before boarding, and Arteri, a guide who rode with us (and with whom we’d become friends over dinner the night before) led our group of trekking bag-bedecked travelers toward a cafe with COFFEE. The ferry was breathtaking. It lasted around 3 hours and Katie and I stood by the helm of the boat, watching the mountainscape shift and change. We made ourselves pb&js and subsequently realized we would run out of food far sooner than we anticipated.

3rd mode of transportation: Another minibus. Katie, Agustín and I watched as first our friend from Wales, then a lovely Austrian couple, and finally a group of awesome young French friends with a kitten hopped off the bus and went on their way. We were the last to be dropped off, on a gravel road leading…?

We grabbed water from a nearby guesthouse (tasty mountain water) ~ this is where we realized we’d be drinking actual glacial water for the next few days ~ and walked, mapless (to Katie’s chagrin), toward the trail which was marked with red and white stripes painted on rocks and trees.

We decided to stop pretty soon to find a camping spot. We’d heard of “Daniel’s guesthouse” which was apparently somewhat close… our trail brought us to a farmhouse and we saw an older woman dressed in all black preparing a horse to gather firewood. Agustín had been in Albania longer than we had, so he tried his Albanian with her. Slowly we came to realize that the farmhouse was indeed “Daniel’s guesthouse” and that we would be allowed (with a grin from the woman) to pitch our tents up a small hill near their barn. So that is what we did.

The mountains arced all around us. Wildflowers flowed gently in the breeze (perhaps a product of the nearby stream) and the sun was hot but tempered with fleeting clouds.

After our tents were pitched (during which time my tent decided to attempt flight because I hadn’t staked it down, and Katie, Agustín and I were forced to chase it down) we made our way toward the living quarters. We met Daniel’s brother on the way, who was a man perhaps 40 years old. We couldn’t communicate in each other’s languages yet he handed us a handful of wild strawberries he picked and this was enough. At first Katie and I supposed that the strawberries were for the sheep and tried to feed them to these sheep ~ Agustín ate his right away and got more from us when we had no success with the sheep ~ but we ended up eating them. They were tiny and surprisingly delicious.

At the house we met two small children, one maybe 5 years old and the other probably 3. They were extremely shy and we tried to involve them in playing with a soccer ball we found, to no avail. A woman walked out and greeted us, asking if we wanted tea. YES we’d love tea, we told her. Agustin had asked if we could have dinner already and established we’d eat around 8 o’clock. So we sat down at an outside table and Agustín attempted to woo the kids with magic tricks using a stone. The 3 year old became curious and laughed but the older girl remained shy.

Soon our dinner arrived and was wayyy more than we’d expected. We had incredible, warm, luscious, (there aren’t adjectives enough to describe how good this was) soup with warm homemade bread, vegetables, cheese, and heavy yoghurt (which I loved, Katie was neutral about and Agustín hated). ***Before dinner I made friends with the older girl ~ we used the notebook app on my phone to draw*** As I ate the older girl walked up to me and started making motions with her arms ~ I emulated her and she started to laugh. Soon we were performing an odd kind of yoga. This lasted pretty much throughout dinner and at the end we were fast friends. I gave her one of my twine bracelets and her younger sister one as well. She wanted to wear them.

When we finally left the table after eating heartily and being nearly too full to walk, we met Daniel. He is a younger man, younger than myself, and speaks fluent English. We learned how much we were to pay for dinner and the tent spot, paid, then I had to say goodbye to my new friend. The little girl wouldn’t let go of my hand even when the woman in black tried to pull her away. I gave her another bracelet and she held onto that instead. Friendship is so easy for children ~ I think love should be this way.

Katie and I had to share one sleeping pad. This was accomplished by setting our trekking bags on either side of the pad so we wouldn’t roll off (sleeping  pads keep you warm at night since the cold of the earth won’t seep into your skin). This was a bit hard and we didn’t perfect it until we had camped for the third night (later in this story).

The next morning we departed and began walking toward Theth, the village we knew was approximately 6 hours of trekking ahead of us. Our path took us up a steep incline. We wound around the woods and over gravel and grass and through meadows. We weren’t the only ones on the path; we often saw groups of travelers, mostly with guides and horses or mules to carry their packs.

We stopped at a wooden shack partway up the mountain with a sign shouting “CAFE BAR” and tantalizing smells of coffee. We shrugged off our packs and found a bench upon which to sit, sweaty and out of breath. Katie and I ordered Nescafe (“It’s better for mountain hiking, more energy!” said the man running the cafe) and Agustín got Turkish coffee (“Look, this is how it’s made! Over the stove.” said Agustín in answer to my curiosity). It was quickly evident that the man running the cafe was kind, and when travelers slowly left his cafe he had time to chat with us. We asked him about how he lived up here ~ he lived with his family but they’d leave during the winter. They ran the cafe during the tourist season. They had sodas and a kind of local quiche with herbs and cheese, and coffee (of course). Two young children ran around, laughing, and smiled at us.

Soon we left and continued on our way. The trees melted away as we gained altitude until we were on a snake-like path with sparse boulders and endless wildflowers. Agustín led us but was struggling under the weight of his 2 packs while Katie and I were doing alright with our packs ~ we had left much of our things at the hostel, knowing we’d return, while Agustín had everything he was traveling with.

At last we reached the pass. The wind was strong and chilling but the sun was bright and the mountains stood tall. It felt like, at that height, having walked that far, we were accepted by the moutains and the flowers and the rocks. They recognized us as we recognized them.

We left our packs in some bushes and walked farther up onto a frighteningly narrow promontory where we had a 360 degree view of the Balkans. We stood and saw the world.

Walking down was slow and steady. We stopped first in a meadow to eat apples, oranges, and cheese with soft bread, then again in the forest with sloping, tall trees to paint the colors of the landscape.

At the end of our trek Agustín stopped and told us, “I can tell you are tired because you do not say ‘WHOA, This is so beautiful!’ all of the time.” Katie and I were exhausted ~ my thighs were shaking and I felt utterly spent. Agustín’s comment woke me up, though, and I again realized the gravity of the beauty surrounding us. As we walked into Theth, the village at the end of our trek, I was struck by awe. A beautiful village in a very small valley with full, green mountains shadowed by enormous rock mountains and sunlight reaching in arcs along the edges.

We didn’t know where to camp, but a young man walked out of a guesthouse to speak with us. His name was Francesko and he offered us a camping spot for 5 Euros a night ~ we could also use their toilets and hot showers. Could we get bread and cheese from him, we asked… yes of course. If we couldn’t pay that was fine, he had food for us. After some discussion we decided to stay with him.

After leaving our packs at the farmhouse near the guesthouse he asked if we’d like to get beers with him. Agustín said YES and we went with the two Swedish women we’d met back in Valbone (they emerged from Daniel’s guesthouse when we were havng dinner ~ Evelina said “hi” to us and Agustín replied, “what the hell?!” It was hard to expect her to emerge from the farmhouse when we’d seen nothing of the pair before. It turned out they’d been napping after hiking during the day, and the family had lent them a room to sleep in. We chatted comfortably over dinner that night with her and her friend Sara). Francesko sat with us as we ordered Tirana beers and talked about what we do back home, what we were doing in Albania… it was wonderful.

Quickly the evening became chilly, though, and we left for our tents. We asked Francesko if we could buy bread, cheese, tomatos, and cucumbers from him and he acquiesced ~ Katie and I found kittens to play with while we  waited. As the food was brought out a woman walked up to us. She asked if she could sit with us and then subsequently left to speak with a tour guide. We began to eat and soon she returned, bearing a bottle of Merlot. Her husband, whom we had quickly met earlier, joined us. They were from Germany and traveling in a refurbished old car and camper, and each night found travelers to sit and chat with. The woman happily found glasses for all of us, poured us wine, and made a toast.

We talked for a while about our lives, learning that the couple had met back when Germany was separated into the east and west. He was from west Germany and she from the east ~ they’d met in an unlikely circumstance and fallen in love.

***I forgot to write about another incredible couple we met in Valbone a we walked to a waterfall ~ we met Filipa and Peter on the path and they decided to walk with us. Agustín and Peter walked ahead and chatted while Filipa walked with me and Katie and told us stories of her family. They were stories of love.

Back to that night in Theth: We eventually said goodbye to the German couple and wished each other it was quite cold but we made our trekking back – sleeping pad set-up and passed out.

In the morning we woke up relatively late and expected to leave that day on a minibus back to Shkoder but we ended up deciding to stay another day ~ when would we be back in this beautiful place? Life is too full of beautiful places to count on returning. Agustín decided to share with us his yerba mate tea, which he saved only for special occasions. He went to the house and asked for hot water, and prepared a gourd carved into a cup supported by ornate wire. He filled the gourd-cup with tea leaves and inserted a metal straw which would filter out the leaves as we drank. When the hot water came, he poured only on one side of the leaves. He drank his cup, then refilled the cup and passed it to me. We spent the next half-hour or so passing the cup and refilling the tea, with Katie and later Agustín perched in my hammock (a Christmas gift from David, my other half) which I’d hung between two trees near our tents. The German woman came to say good morning and tried some. As we drank we read from a guidebook Katie had borrowed from the hostel about northern Albanian culture (as I write this I’m reading aloud ~ Katie wants me to add that she did indeed return the book). When the tea was finished, we walked toward the center of the village.

I met a lovely cow and pig whom I greeted and I spent time scratching the cow’s face. I called her Rose. She and I definitely became friends.

We made our way toward the village center and found the “Blood Tower,” where men used to hide when there were vengeance cycles (if one man did another wrong from a different family he would be killed, and then his family would kill a man from the other… etc) the Blood Tower was a remnant of that time. I asked Francesko later on if this still occurred and he said no, yet the guidebook said that this has moved into the cities. I’d need to do more research to know for sure… to learn more.

We walked back to Francesko’s home to tell him we’d be staying so that he could tell the bus driver. We got more bread, cheese, tomatos and cucumber and chowed down by our tents. We met a group of young German travelers who had set up camp next to us and became friends. We decided to all walk toward the waterfall together.

We walked slowly and I chatted with different people from the group. I was delighted by how genuinely wonderful our conversations were ~ about plants, and home, and the mountains and farming… we reached the waterfall in no time. Katie, Agustín and I had brought our swimsuits and quickly jumped into the glacial pool around the falls before our bodies cooled down from the hike. The water was almost unbearably cold and when I dove under I could feel my body freeze its normal functions. I gasped and hopped and slipped toward the warm, sunlit rocks beyond the falls. I watched and laughed as the Germans got in and everyone peer-pressured one guy to get in (he good-naturedly tried repeatedly but it was too cold!) We stayed there for a while, listening to the water and letting the sun rest on our skin.

On the way back I befriended a young dog. He was playing near the cow, Rose, and the pig, and I petted him. When I tried to walk away he followed. Ten minutes later, a young man on the path called to him and tried to grab him ~ I defended the dog, trying to tell him that he was sweet, and the guy said, “He’s my dog!” I laughed and tried to call the dog over, but the guy told me, “Bring him tomorrow at 9 am to the church.” I was a bit surprised ~ had I just casually rented a dog until the next morning? I agreed and we parted.

When we got back to the camp, the dog started chasing the chickens. We were all exhausted but Agustín noted how the dog might actually harm one of the chickens, so I played with the dog until he’d follow me pack onto the path toward the guy I’d met. When we got to the next guesthouse, though, the dog started actually chasing their chickens. “DANGEROUS!” a woman called to me, repeatedly, as I chased the dog in my bathing suit around their yard and the dog chased the chickens. A couple was eating lunch nearby and watched, their faces showing slight alarm. “I’m sorry,” I called, and they shrugged. Finally I just picked the dog up and carried him toward the path. He was fuzzy and light, and he looked a bit ruffled but content for the moment to ride in my arms.

A few minutes of walking later, I saw Francesko at a cafe. He burst into laughter when he saw me and came to join me. I explained the situation and he laughed harder, saying he knew who the dog belonged to. We walked together to bring the hapless dog to the guy I’d met.

When we finally returned to Francesko’s home (dogless) I was pretty tired. I asked Francesko where we could get food ~ not just veges, cheese, and bread ~ and he recommended a place just a few minutes’ walk away. Agustín, Katie and I went there and got the most wonderful arrangement of stuffed peppers, yoghurt (of course), fried potatoes, salad… it was like being reborn to the world of dinner.

After dinner Francesko asked us if we’d like to go to a bar with him. We were exhausted but he talked us into it by saying there was a “surprise” at the bar. He explained that it would be baby bears and I became worried ~ had they been taken from the forest and were being raised as tourist bait?? Regardless, we would go with Francesko and see.

Francesko and his friend drove us in a small van into the forest. We bumped on the mountain road for perhaps 15 minutes until we reached a new guesthouse. Upon getting out, we met a rugged man who asked us, “So, you want to see the bears?”

He walked us to a nearby pen ~ quite large and open ~ and called “Tommy, Jerry!” He opened a door and put down a ladder.

The next thing I knew, two incredibly fluffy cubs were in my lap. They tackled me and Katie and reached for our hands with their mouths, sucking our fingers for lack of milk. I was struck dumb by them. I was in love and in joy and couldn’t believe there were actual young bears trying to get milk out of my fingers.

The man brought us bottles of milk and we fed the cubs. After eating, he brought them back to the ladder and they went back through the gate (somewhat unhappily) and we walked with Francesko, his friend, and this man up into the bar. We talked for a while and asked for stories about the man’s life, our conversation accompanied by beer and oiled cucumber (“It’s good with beer,” the man said).

Exhaustion hit perhaps an hour later we were quiet until Francesko’s friend returned from picking up tourists ~ we rode back to our tents around midnight. We thanked Francesko, who had bought our drinks, and I told him how much it meant to meet the bears. We all went to our beds (or sleeping pad) and slept.

The next mornig Agustín, Katie and I decided to again go to the cafe for breakfast. Francesko came with us and decided we would have bread, honey, cheese, fig jam, and butter ~ it was the most delicious breakfast I think I’ve ever had. Afterward Agus, Katie and I went across the river to the ruins of an old Communist bilding and sat to read, paint, and journal.

We spent our time in this way until a jeep came to pick us up around 2 pm. We were squished in the jeep, with 9 people in total fitting in the car, and spent the next hour holding onto the seats to avoid bumping our heads on the cieling as the jeep’s wheels dealt with the mountain road. Two young boys were seated next to me and Katie in the back and they spoke in Albanian to each other and the driver, glancing at us and laughing ~ Katie and I laughed as we realized they were making fun of us. We started trying to speak with them and began to teach each other the other’s language until I had to look forward or vomit from motion-sickness.

We reached Shkoder in only a few hours. Agustine, Katie and I walked toward the hostel we’d stayed in before (the amazing one) and were again given rooms. It felt like home.

We sat downstairs and drank tea until we noticed Ani, the young woman who is the daughter of Alma, the owner, leaving in a rush. “Where are you going?” Katie asked. “To a farm!” Ryan, a Workawayer at the hostel, said. “Want to come?” We had to hurry to grab our shoes and then jumped into the van. Alma was driving, and we had to scoot around Ziggy the dog to find a place to kneel among the gardening tools and a box of watermelon. “Oh! Friends!” Alma said and laughed as she pulled away.

We drove only a few minutes and stopped on a dirt road surrounded by growing things. We jumped out and Ryan explained that he’d fill a tarp bag with water and bring it to us ~ he’d fill our buckets with the water and we’d water the plants.

Alma walked with us, showing us plant-by-plant where to pour water. “No, pour here~” she’d point. It was quiet, peaceful work as the sun set in the mountains on the horizon. “After I do this,” she explained, “I return to the hostel so happy. People ask me why I look so happy. I tell them it is the plants.”
She and Ryan showed us how to pull up onions and lettuce as Ani and her friend, a young man, wandered off to pick figs. They brought us back the ripe fruit and we ate them. There is a joy in having dirt on your hands and in your fingers and eating fruit from a plant you can see and feel and smell. Ziggy padded happily around us, weaving between plants. We watched the sun set.

The next day, we left Albania. I spent the morning before we left drinking tea and then walked, alone, with an earbud in one ear, to a market not far from the hostel (“Just 10 minutes ~ just walk past the two roundabouts then take the second left,” said Ryan). I made my way through the stalls of the market and bought fruit I couldn’t identify ~ when I went to purchase a pear from one fruit-seller, she refused to take my money, smiling and pushing my wallet away.

I was welcomed by so many people in Albania. I was trusted and given time and advice and stories and food and a place to put my tent.

First night in the Red Light District

We accidentally spent our first night in Amsterdam in the Red Light District.

Anna and I landed in Amsterdam around 9 pm and had somehow thought we were going to land earlier in the afternoon. We were going to find a campground I’d looked into, but it was too late to try to find our way to the campsite, which is 30 minutes away by bike. So we looked on HostelWorld as we were waiting for our trekking bags at baggage claim. We found a really affordable hostel with okayyy ratings and decided to go for that.

We didn’t know how to get there, but we figured we could take the train to Amsterdam Centraal and figure it out from there. On the platform we met Michelle, a nurse with the most fairy-like and amazingly-colored hair. We talked while we waited for the train and then shared stories from traveling on the train to the central station.

Anna and I told Michelle about how we were trying to use Couchsurfing but hadn’t found anyone to host us in Amsterdam. At the end of our ride, as everyone stood up to get off, a woman approached us. “I couldn’t help but hear your conversation…” She offered to let us stay at her home. “I’ve never done something like this before, but I’d love to trade my couch for your stories and travel advice.” Smriti gave us her phone number and we agreed to talk soon, since she would have to speak with her housemate first.

We parted from Michelle and made our way toward our hostel. My friend Josephine recommended a GPS app for when I don’t have wifi and it works extraordinarily well ~ it’s called Maps.me ~ so we found our hostel with little trouble. The streets were already full of people milling around, with drinks or food or smokes. I noticed that there were mostly groups of men and mentioned this to Anna, but we still didn’t think much of it.

We found the hostel in a narrow alley after asking for help from a few people. The steps into the hostel were intensely narrow and steep ~ I wish I’d taken a photo, but it was incredibly hard edging up the stairs with my trekking bag. I got my bag stuck on the ceiling, it was such a small space.

Because we were doing a last-minute reservation the only beds available were in different rooms. “Who wants room 4, who wants room 6?” The young man working at reception asked us. Anna claimed room 4, so I got room 6.

I walked in, and there were two guys singing in Spanish and playing the guitar. They didn’t pause as I put my stuff down. I had a top bunk. I looked around and quickly realized I was the only female in the dorm. Pshhh no big deal, I thought to myself.

Anna’s room was lovely. There was a young woman there relaxing as her boyfriend went to buy donuts for them, and we chatted about road tripping and traveling. Traveling is a go-to conversation topic when you are traveling and meet people.

Anna and I decided to go walk around and explore.

We made our way outside and walked along the canal. We found a restaurant for dinner and got a couple of drinks and sandwiches, and walked around more. The streets were dark unless lit by cafes or coffeeshops. As the time grew later, I heard more comments directed our way by men milling around the street corners. I felt uncomfortable and hadn’t expected Amsterdam to be like this, just on any old street in the city. I commented to Anna that perhaps we were in the Red Light District ~ it was then that we came upon the red-lit rooms with women standing in the windows.

Realization of the night: there is a correlation between objectification of women and increased comments as to particular body parts, and the area where prostitution occurs. Of course there would be ~ although it is safer here, this does not remove the aspect of prostitution that it involves purchasing services solely for the physical, the object-part.

I don’t like the feeling of walking around and being an object. No one does.

The adventures continued in the hostel. Anna and I went to our respective rooms, but a huge group of guys walked in just as I was falling asleep. They were really loud and obviously drunk, and started all getting undressed. I had had a glass of wine, and decided that the situation warranted escape.

Anna and I ended up sitting on the tiny platform between the 2 floors of the hostel with unimaginably narrow and steep staircases. We talked for a while, until we decided that the move to make would be for us to share Anna’s bunk bed in her *lovely* room.

Anna, in her hurry to meet me, had left her keys in her room.

Then commenced a night of both of us sharing the top bunk of the bed in my room. I hadn’t thought to move all of my stuff off the bed, and we ended up kicking things onto the guy underneath us. The bed was so small that we fit shoulder-to-shoulder but couldn’t move. The blanket didn’t even cover one of us.

We found the world’s best hostel first thing the next morning.

 

Fell asleep on the side of a mountain

Andalsnes was most definitely my favorite city in Norway we visited. It was distinctly mountainous and the valley was full of beautiful Norwegian homes and the river, hinting at a nearby fjord.

After the hike I wrote about in my last post, Anna and I were beyond exhausted and thoroughly soaked (as was the tent) so we decided to swallow our pride and rent a room at a hostel. At the hostel we spent most of our time doing laundry and losing ourselves in layers of blankets on the hostel’s comfy couches, but at some point we looked up trains back to Bergen (where our flight left to Amsterdam on the 29th). Trains in Andalsnes do not run on the weekend, and the ride was too long to leave day-of. We realized that we had to leave the city we had finally decided we could settle in for more than one night.

We decided to visit Voss instead of go directly to Bergen because we’d heard Voss was a smaller town with mountains easily accessible. We caught the train around 4 pm and it went directly to Oslo, where we had a one hour layover. We decided to grab some food and met a few men from Albania at an Italian food restaurant in the station. We chatted for a while ~ I spoke with one man about his lifestyle of finding work in foreign countries and learning the languages there, then moving on.

We rode the train from Oslo overnight to Voss. The overnight trains aren’t the most comfortable when you have standard seats, but I asked the conductor if it would be alright if I slept in two seats across from ours and Anna slept in ours. She checked her little ticket machine, and nodded. Relief.

I woke up around 3 am. My legs were crushed against the train window, and I tried to shift into a more comfortable position and pushed my complementary eye-mask up. I saw a stark and gorgeous landscape out the windows. The 3 am dusk-ness of the sky lingered over the world beyond the tough plastic of my window. Sparse homes stood strong on black rock, with white snow encroaching upon the homes’ premises. I sat, aghast, mind helplessly rolling over the idea of living upon a mountaintop.

I woke up again (must have fallen asleep at some point) around 5 am, just a few minutes before we were supposed to get off the train. I sluggishly yanked on my trekking bag and stood by the doors, prepared.

When we arrived Anna and I stumbled in the pre-dawn grey into the train station. We bought our tickets to Bergen for 2 days later, hoping fervently we’d love Voss enough to enjoy staying so long compared to our other stops.

We walked into the town. Nothing was open of course, but we saw that a small gas station was well-lit so we wandered through its doors.

There we met Lena. She offered to pay for our second coffee if we’d buy groceries for her to then cook us a traditional Norwegian breakfast when she got off work at 7. We were eager to comply, and got our coffees then walked out into the mist. We found a vast lake behind the gas station and watched as the morning fog lose itself into the sun spilling into the air.

We met Caroline when we returned, a San Francisco-ian (?) who was traveling with family then decided to keep traveling when they returned home. She was unbelievably wonderful, and chatting in that gas station, the only place open in Voss before 8 am, we found a bubble of warmth and peace.

When it became 7 am Lena grabbed her stuff and asked if we were ready. We followed her to a grocery store, bought the necessary items for Norwegian porridge, and went to her shared home a lovely walk away. We talked on her balcony then Lena began to heat the oats. We ate them on her porch with strawberry jam and conversation.

Anna and I left after a couple of hours. We walked to a bookstore to find a new novel (I’d just finished my Agatha Christie book) and got the advice from the young man working at the bookstore on where to walk: “just find your way” up the mountain. “Isn’t there a trail?” I asked… “No you have to find your own way.”

Turns out there most definitely was a trail, and we spent nearly an hour wandering the neighborhood lugging our massive packs before we found the lovely dirt path by the Folk Museum. We began to walk upwards and honestly my mind, for most of the way, was bent on forcing my feet forward and upward while they screamed that this extra weight wasn’t normal and therefore they hadn’t signed up for this!

We made it to the lookout. Exhausted, we dropped our packs and pulled out our towels and books ~ we found spots among the grass on the hillside overlooking the town and lake, and quickly fell asleep in the sunlight soaking the mountain.

We woke up sometime in the evening and decided to set up camp right there. We hadn’t slept adequately the night before on the train, so a lazy, sunlit afternoon and evening were quite welcome. As evening shrouded the mountain, we got into our sleeping bags and passed out.

We woke up to the full light of the sun and began making our way down the mountain. It was tough ~ I fell once as the weight of the pack threw me off balance ~ but we made it down.

We found a lovely cafe called Tres Brors and sat with the warmth of coffee for over an hour. I journaled and we talked to our families. Eventually we reemerged into the town, bent on finding a campsite with showers.

We found said campsite but they charged $10 per person and over $1 per 4 minutes of showering… I was not feeling the vibes so we left. We ran into Lena’s housemate, Fouad, who showed us where an open grocery store was. I grabbed a can of beans in tomato sauce (Noway is expensiveeee) and Anna grabbed some vegetables. We ate on a short stone wall then shouldered our packs again and started walking (relatively) aimlessly around the neighborhood. “Where are you trying to go?” asked one man watering his lawn. “The mountains…?” was my rely.

We ended up heading back into town to go on a walk by the lake ~ also Anna had a hunch that we could find good camping space there. It was definitely a move by the universe to turn us toward the lake because the view and the breeze… also we could see the tips of pine trees peeking out above the water level ~ they had become submerged and somehow still survived.

We walked around, into a densely wooded mini-peninsula, and found a large boulder. I did some yoga and stretched, then we decided to ditch our bags in the bushes until we came back to set up camp. We put the tent’s rain cover around the bags (the cover is nature-green) and started walking.

We walked toward a gorge Anna had read on the area’s map. Walking trail signs were easy to spot, and we made our way over a bridge and into the neighborhood again. Almost directly adjacent to the houses we found our gorge.

We sat there for a long time, talking and listening to the water. The water was mesmerizing, bashing itself against black rock fearlessly. I felt terrified ~ to perhaps one day be water and to move so freely as the glacial falls ~ but how could the water be afraid?

​We camped that night at the edge of the lake. I stayed for a while on the boulder, looking out at the lake and the city’s lights. The moon was just a sliver but seemed larger somehow ~ is Norway nearer to the moon? Is that possible?

The next morning we broke camp before the sun rose, went to Lena’s gas station to say goodbye (she gave us donuts and waffles, we bought coffee) and caught our train to Bergen.