6 Things That I Liked About Living in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain

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Living in a caravan in The Sierra Nevada mountains of Andalucia, Spain afforded me many adventures.  Occasionally, there was also time to relax and watch the blue waters of the Mediterranean from my portable home one thousand meters above the town of Orgiva.  During one such occasion I got out my memo pad and began making a list, as I often do.  I listed my favorite things about my Andalucian adventure thus far.  Today I would like to share some of the things that topped my “favorites list” on that afternoon in Andalucia.  Here are my six favorite things about my brief time spent living in the Sierra Nevada.

#6- Beneficio and the Orgiva Hippies

After a bus ride through the Sierra Nevada Mountains we came upon a town named Orgiva.  I stepped off the bus in Orgiva and took a seat on the bus stop bench.  I watched the people in the sidewalks and the dogs in the street.  I soon noticed that there seemed to be two very different opinions in this town when it came to fashion sense.  Most of the men and women donned clothing that was plain, clean, and pressed.  However, every few minutes someone would walk by, usually with a walking stick and makeshift pack, wearing wild, disheveled layers of multicolored clothing.  When my ride up the mountain arrived he told me that outside of town, in the valley, there is a group of “hippies” living in a commune called Beneficio.  He revealed that he had helped to found Beneficio eighteen years ago.  Over the next two weeks I would hear the stories of the commune and even spend time with its residents as I wandered through the teepees and gardens of Beneficio and the streets of Orgiva.  For some of the stories involving Beneficio and Orgiva check out my “Spain” section.

Beneficio Commune in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Central Beneficio

Why Beneficio and the Orgiva Hippies made the list:

When I would lay in the grass, high up on the mountain, in the afternoon I would look down into Beneficio and see the hippies working hard and being responsible.  Stereotype shattered.  If that is not enough reason for them to be on the list then I could just remind you that for almost twenty years these people have turned this valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains into a community that eats together, lives together, and works together.

#5- Kombucha

My friends in the big mud, cement, log house invited me in often for lunch.  One day, while having avocado salad I noticed a jar. It sat on a shelf near the ceiling.  The liquid inside was blood red and floating at the top was a dark mass.  Within a few minutes of me asking what it was I had the jar in my hand and was tasting the bloody liquid.  It was Kombucha, a Japanese beverage.  The liquid inside was a tea/sugar mixture.  The mass floating at the top was a slimy, gray colony of bacteria and yeast.  The gray chunk turns the liquid into a lightly carbonated sweet beverage when it is finished brewing, which this batch was not.  It was bitter and flat.  Obviously, the kombucha’s delicious flavor and appetizing presentation were not what I liked about this experience.  So what was it that made me add Kombucha to the list…?

Why Kombucha made the list:

As I drank from the vile-looking concoction I realized that I was living a global experience.  I was an American trying a Japanese drink with a British family in Spain.  Nice.

#4- The White Villages of Andalucia

Cáñar and the Sierra Nevada

Small villages consisting of white buildings can be found scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains.  For a few weeks I stayed a fifteen minute hike from one of these traditional villages, Cáñar.  There are a few hundred people that populate the village.  Some days the only street would be populated by more goats than cars.  The two bar/tapas restaurants in the village hold fifteen or twenty people, though I rarely saw  more than a few patrons inside.  The narrow, winding path that weaves through the village ends abruptly in many places.  Suddenly, the mountainside drops off, leaving a 180 degree view of the Sierra Nevada and its white villages.

Why The White Villages of Andalucia made the list:

After a few weeks of near daily trips to one such village I was able to learn a few local phrases and make a few friends while learning about daily life in one Andalucian white village.  Also, just look at them.  From a distance it looks like part of history has traveled through time and landed in present day without a scratch on it.  From up close the scratches and dents of history lend the dignity befitting of such an historical community.

#3- The Dogs

For anyone who has traveled to the villages of the Sierra Nevada this choice may be a little puzzling.  The dogs in many smaller towns wander in the streets with little fear of the traffic.  They follow anyone with food hoping something falls to the ground.  They are seen as a nuisance.  They are sometimes mistreated and most often believed to be a pest but I disagree.  I think they are great animals.  Most of the ones that I came in contact with were social with the passersby and other dogs.  There is only one thing I would change about them…  I wish they had a home.  In fact, I would like to see that for all the stray dogs out there.  If you are in a position to adopt a dog, stop by your local animal shelter to help save a dog from a life of begging or worse.  If you are in Andalucia and would like to adopt a dog go to http://www.petsinspain.info/index.htm for information on how to help a down and out Andalucian pup like one of these:

Why The Dogs made the list:

The dogs made the list because even though they were a lot of fun in the street I bet they would be even more fun in somebody’s home.

#2- The Views

This choice should not puzzle anyone who has been to The Sierra Nevada mountains.  Whether you are standing in the river looking up the cliffs or gathering firewood at 2,000 meters there is always a vista in Andalucia.  Here are a few of my favorite Sierra Nevada scenes.

Why The Views made the list:

See above

#1- The People

I first experienced Andalucia via the Granada bus station.  I arrived late in the evening and the next bus to Orgiva did not leave until morning.  I arranged my sleeping bag, blanket, and down coat in a fashion that I hoped would prevent a sore neck in the morning.  When morning came I woke up to the sound of the cafe opening.  It was full of excited people standing at the bar, ordering, drinking cafe con leche, and talking.  I hurried to join them.  This was one of my first chances to converse in Spanish while in Spain.  I will not go into details but it was more difficult than I had anticipated.  I did, however, still manage to meet some friendly people and work through a conversation.  These people in the Granada bus station would be the first of many groups of Andalucians I would speak awkward Spanish in front of as I learned the language.  They would also be the first of many groups of people in Andalucia who would show me why this region has a reputation for beauty in both its nature and its people.

Why The People made the list:

For me traveling is a great way to see amazing things.  I am constantly impressed by what people have managed to do here on earth; the monuments they have created and the history they have left behind.  However, none of these things impresses me like the people I get to know as I search for the next site.  They each have a unique story to tell and I always like a good story so the people have to be my favorite.

As you might imagine, there are other ways you could occupy your time in the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains but this is what I did.  Next month I will be posting an adventure from a hike to the far side of the mountains around Orgiva so keep a look out for that.  Until then…


How I Ended up Working for a Barcelona Pub Crawl

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I knocked on Yasmin’s Barcelona door in the early afternoon.  I had spent the morning adventuring in the Olympic Village, after checking out of my hostel with a RyanAir ticket to Gothenberg, Sweden and my backpack.  I made some Swedish friends in Rome last year and stayed in contact with them.  Now, I was finally going to see them in their homes.  I had been planning this leg of the trip for months.  In Rome, the Swedes swelled with the pride of their fine country and its fine people.  For the next couple of weeks they would show me why, I thought.

As I walked towards  Barcelona’s el Gotic district, where I had spent most of my time since arriving, I thought about how I would get to Gothenberg and then Jonkoping, where I would be staying.  The night before my wallet had been stolen with my cash, debit cards, and identification cards inside.  This certainly added a level of difficulty to the trip but I was pretty certain I could still make it.

I knocked on Yasmin’s Barcelona door.  She opened the door and, with a smile, invited me in.  She was just moving into this new flat so I asked how I could help.  After hanging a black shelf that ran the length of the longest wall and assembling an Ikea table I was starting to get hungry.

For the past four days I had been wandering in Barcelona’s el Gotic district.  The bed I rented for my first four days in Barcelona was on Escudellers in the heart of el Gotic.  The buildings began where the one lane street ends.  At night I was sleeping on the third floor in an apartment that had been repurposed into a hostel by adding five beds to each of the bedrooms.  Below the window of this hostel there was a party that lasted until the sun rose over Barcelona.

Now, here I was four doors down and one floor up helping a new friend from Angelholm, Sweden move into a flat in Barcelona.  I could hear the street festivities below.  I could smell the fresh samosas that were being sold out of cardboard boxes.  My new Swedish friend asked when I was leaving to see my other Swedish friends in Sweden.  As was true of most of the people I met from Sweden, Yasmin was certain I would enjoy my adventures there.

Then I told her my story about getting robbed at the end of Barcelona’s main promenade, La Rambla.  She told me that if you haven’t been robbed at least once in Barcelona then you haven’t really seen Barcelona.  We both laughed and then she got serious.  She told me that she knew what it was like to get robbed here and it was not fun.  She offered me her couch, if I assembled it first, so I reconsidered my trip to Sweden.  Without any money the trip to Sweden was going to be slower than I had hoped.  It would also mean meager eating and free transportation.  Once in Jonkoping I could have someone from my family mail me my new debit card when it arrived at my home.  This was one option.  This ended up not being the option I chose.

In Yasmin’s flat above the narrow street in el Gotic, Barcelona I assembled a couch.  Then, that night Yasmin, James, Walter, Yvanna, Davíd, Jim, Emilie, and I went out together to see the city’s nightlife.  While we were out James told me that he knew a guy who would let me work for him doing pub crawl promotions any night of the week.  I was hoping to get make some quick cash while I waited for my debit card so the next night I walked over to the Victoria Pub.

I went into the pub and found James’ friend, Jason, who had moved to Barcelona from California.  He told me to meet him outside the bar in about a half hour.  When I came back there was a small group of people outside the Victoria Pub.  They were also working for some quick cash.  Most of them were either travelers or new arrivals in Barcelona.  No one had any plans to do this work long term.  A few of them had been doing it off and on for a month now for extra money.  Jason made it very clear that we could take this seriously or not.  To him it made very little difference.  If we brought people in to the pub to sign up for the pub crawl then he paid us for each person.  If we did not then he paid us nothing.  He handed each person in the crowd an unopened box of cheap sangria, told them to have fun, and we dispersed.

When I got to Placa Reial I sold my Sangria to an old man from Barcelona for a fair price.  I wandered the Placa, full of glowstick salesman and club promoters, reading the flyer I had been given about the “pub walk.”  Jason warned the group of us that the police do not allow “pub crawls” in Barcelona.  However, they will allow “pub walks.”  So, with what information I had I came up with a pitch and began talking to everyone in Placa Reial.  I started with the salesmen and other promoters because I knew they would tell me no while I worked out my pitch.  After talking to fifty or so people I saw a group of American girls sitting on the edge of the fountain.  As I talked to them they grew interested in the pub walk.  I escorted them to the pub to sign up and get a drink.  Then I went back to work in Placa Reial.  I made twenty-two Euros that night but, more importantly, I talked to a lot of people from around the world that night.  Most of them had no interest in a pub walk but a lot of them had a few minutes to share a story.

Well, the adventures in Barcelona went on for a few weeks after this and I will share them with you soon.  Until then…


In a Bubble

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From my notes of Day 41: 2/20/2012

I have been staying with Julia and her family for about a week now.  Everyday discussions about gardening, the new Rhodesian Ridgeback pup, and past travel destinations have become comfortable and revealing.  Julia has good ideas, with a proven past, on how to build a community.  She started a weekly yoga class in the one room stone house above the driveway.  There were a dozen or so attendants every week.  After the class was finished there was a social time with baked goods and tea in the house.  Everyone was invited.  There were always a few more people at the social hour than at the class.  I was one of those people.

While the group was working on their chakra I was out on the property working on a garden.   Near the middle of the winding driveway there was a path that led to a few rectangular gardens.  One of them was bisected by an olive tree.  The broad beans that had sprung up under the olive branches weeks earlier were now in danger of dwindling.  Weeds had grown up around them.  The shade of the olive branches deprived them of the sun.  I could not move the olive branches but I could move the weeds and beans.  I have been working on this area when I have had a chance for a couple of days and today I noticed new leaves sprouting on the weeded beans.

Usually when I was working on that garden Rupert would come over and tell me how much better it looked than the last time he saw it.  He would come over and work with me until he was needed somewhere else.  He was always telling me to take breaks when I got bored.  He could never understand how I did not mind working alone.  Today, though, he didn’t come over to that garden.  I was watching a prickly white caterpillar that I had found when I heard him down in the driveway.  I looked over the cliff.  He was on the phone, pacing in short circles.

I could not tell what was wrong.  I went down to the house to see if there was anything I could do.  The class had just finished.  As everyone walked into the house Rupert waited silently.  He explained that Fernando, a member of their community and one of the most experienced construction men around, had been injured in town.  While he was driving in the narrow streets of a nearby village he had clipped the mirror of a parked car.  He knew who the car belonged to and decided it would be best for him to leave with his newborn baby in the back seat before anyone saw him there.

Before Fernando reached the corner the man came out of the carneceria shouting.  He saw Fernando speeding off towards the bend so he got in his car and chased after him.  The mirrorless man and his accompanying convoy encircled Fernando outside of town.  Fernando stopped and tried to talk to the man as they approached his car.  Then a brick pierced his rear window and landed in the seat next to his infant son.  Fernando hit the gas and when he hit the car in front of him he kept the pedal to the floor, trying to push the truck out of the way.  Then his car died.  A gang of men pulled him out of his car, kicking him and beating him with their motorcycle helmets.  They left him in the dirt with his unharmed baby boy in the back seat of the car.  After he regained some strength he drove back to a friend’s house and then went to the hospital.  It sounded like he had a painful, but promising, recovery ahead of him.

I went into the sun room that opens out over the mountain valley.  Wim was in there playing table tennis with someone’s smart young son.  The kid always had an answer for Wim’s seemingly impossible questions.  He was clever but could he play table tennis?  I called the winner.  The speed of Wim’s next backhanded smash across the table froze the youngster.  That was the end of the game.  I was the next challenger.

We never kept score.  We played until we were finished talking about History, Mathematics, and Science.  Some days we only talked about History.  Today we talked about going for a hike around the village.  The game ended soon after with Wim winning.   We grabbed Bubba the Ridgeback and headed up the mountain to the village of Cañar.

Wim attended the school near the top of the mountain when he was younger.  He said there were only about thirty students at the school when he was there.  There are still about thirty students attending the Cañar school.  We passed the “fascist bar” and the Farmacia.  We went into the tapas place in the village and watched a replay of the Valencia V. Madrid soccer match.  We ate different cheeses, olives, and fish along with biscuits and breads.

On our way down the mountain I watched the sun as it neared the horizon.  Wim and Bubba were ahead of me but I was in no hurry.  I was in no hurry, that is, until I remembered that I had not gathered any wood for my burner tonight.  I grimaced with the memory of the last bitter night I had spent without a fire.  I hurried down the decaying mud-board steps.  Wim was almost inside the house.  I told him I would be in shortly.  He did not respond.

After gathering my firewood I went into the house.  Julia was the only one out in the living area.  I sat at the counter with her.  We discussed the usual gardening stuff and Bubba’s escapades.  Then we talked about what had happened to Fernando today.  Then I asked Julia what she thought about politics in Spain.  She told me that she felt the same way about politics in Spain as she did about politics in the rest of the world.  The political systems of the world occur inside a bubble.  She chooses to be outside that bubble.

Rupert joined us and we talked about the books of Tolkien and educational techniques.  Many hours later I stepped out into the darkness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at night.  It was a short walk to my caravan.  The wolves howled and a dog cried from across the valley.  I started a fire and laid down on my bed.  The cool wind came in gusts through the open door.  Soon the smoke would be clear and I could shut the door.  Instead, I left the door open and let the fresh air in.

This is part of the roof of the yoga house. The other half is not visible from the exterior because it goes into the mountain.

What Bubba does not know is that he is about to go on an adventure.

The white caterpillar I was looking at when I first heard Rupert distressed

The flower-lined path that leads to the mud-board stairs

I Got Robbed in Barcelona

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March 31, 2012


A curly haired man in a dirty pink dress came running down the knoll.  He was swinging his arms and shouting at me.  “Stop! Stop!” he insisted as propelled towards me.  When he got near me he jumped in the air and upon his landing was planted squarely in  front of me.

When I arrived at the park with the knoll that afternoon my first sight was a group of performers on slacklines.  They tied the line between two trees to create a kind of lineal trampoline.  I was about to take a picture of one of them when the man in the dirty pink dress came running down the knoll.

“You cannot take that picture.  It is a waste of your time.  It is  a waste to have it on your camera.  You have to wait.  Wait for the man in the black pants.  This is his event and he is the only one worth the time and space.”

After this brief encounter the man walked away.  I stood watching the slackliners.  The man returned and asked if I would like to have a seat with him and his friend on the knoll.  He pointed to the knoll and a dark haired girl wearing a headband with leopard-print ears on top waved to us.

I walked with the man as he told me the first of what would be many interestingly difficult stories.  I sat on the hill where I was introduced to the girl with the leopard-print ears.  As we all listened to the man I got the feeling that sometimes even he was waiting to hear what he would say next.  I gathered that the man was from London and the girl was from somewhere in Sweden.

After watching the man in the black pants we all headed towards the pond so we could rent a boat to float around in for a while.  I took the oars and as I neared a small island the man tried to jump to it.  He hit the muddy side of the steep-shored island and fell to the shallow water below.  He pulled himself up to the dry earth of the tiny, tree covered island.  He tightened the bandages on his foot and tiptoed into the trees.

As he disappeared I heard the furious beating of wings, squawking of fowl, and screaming of the man.  The man jumped off of the island and into the boat as I passed by.  Once I had put some distance between us and the island that was inhabited by the nesting geese we began floating again.

Two old men laughed when the man in the dirty pink dress smiled and asked them if they were looking at him because they thought he was pretty.   He made no attempt to look pretty.  He looked like a guy with a hairy chest and unshaven face who put on a pink dress this morning.  The wound on his foot was badly infected and he often walked with a limp.  He not only walked with a limp, though.  He also skipped, danced, jumped, ran, swam and spun with a limp.  He seemed to know someone in every group of people we passed on the sidewalk and if he didn’t he would get to know someone.  Barcelona was a social event for him.

Before the sun went down I headed back towards my hostel to drop off my bag and valuables.  I was planning to meet my new friends at Placa Real after my brief stop.  When I arrived at my room there were five guys from Germany drinking beer and shouting to the crowds of partiers in the streets below.  As soon as I introduced myself they knew I was from America.  They all told me that they wanted to visit the United States some day.  They asked me a lot of questions about my home country.  We mostly talked about the similarities and differences between real Americans and Americans as portrayed in Hollywood movies.  Bruce Willis and the Die Hard series were a major focal point for the conversation.  I explained to them that almost everyone in America is like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, sort of.

Then they headed to the disco and I headed to the Placa.  Performers juggled and twirled fire.  Merchants did the same with their glow sticks.  I met a group of old women selling pottery to fund their travels and a team of Brazilian football players.  Shopping cart races were being held in one corner of the Placa while the football game was in another.

I stayed for a few hours and then I thanked my new friends for showing me a side of Barcelona I could never have found by myself.  As I left the Placa I thought about where this adventure had started.  I had been watching a few people jump on a rope when a man in a dirty pink dress came charging at me.  I spent the rest of the day making great friends and having great fun.  I was only a few miles from my hostel so I hopped on the open footpath by the water and headed off towards my room.

Oh yeah, then I got mugged by twelve unarmed prostitutes at the end of La Rambla.

Here are some pictures from this adventure…

On Gran Via

Fountain on Gran Via

Statue on Gran Via

Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf

The Castle of the Three Dragons in Ciutadella Park (the park with the knoll)

Sculpture in Ciutadella Park

The Fountain of Ciutadella Park

Looking out from the fountain. In the distance is the pond.

The man in the dirty pink dress.

Action Jack, What Should I Pack? #1

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I was once told that an electric curling iron was a travel necessity.  I was also once informed by a man who swam in the sewers to “bathe and disinfect”  that there is no need to carry basic first aid equipment.  Much of what is necessary depends on your skills and abilities, where you are going, and what you are doing there.  This means that there are as many opinions on what to pack when traveling as there are travelers who are packing.  This is mine…

In May 2011 I prepared for a 75 day trip to Europe.  This is the backpack I brought and everything that was packed in it.

I brought about 50 items with me on this adventure, many of which I never used and did not bring on subsequent adventures.  However, some things made my life easier and I never leave without them.  This post will be about 5 of those items.  In the future I will be posting my thoughts on more items that should or should not be taking up space in your pack.  In no particular order, here are 5 things you should pack.

#1-  A Hat

Pack a hat.  The photo above is some of the last remaining evidence of my favorite travel hat.  It is important that a travel hat is flexible and broad-brimmed.  This makes the hat easy to pack away when it is not in use and an effective sun blocker when it is in use.  This hat had all of that.  An additional feature that made this particular hat so dear to me is the black pull cord that you see coming out of the right side of the ill-fated headpiece.  This cord could be tightened in high winds so that you would never lose it.  Well, almost never.

After staying in the Croatian capital of Zagreb for a few hours of a five day stay I decided to leave.  I went to the bus station and watched the names of cities on the blue departures screen: Karlovac, Novo Mesto, Ogulin, Rijeka, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik, and more.  I went to the counter and asked when the next bus left for the beach.  I got the ticket and spent the next four days in Split, the retirement home of Roman Emperor Diocletian.  His palace still remains and after spending my final two nights in an apartment in the palace I went to the docks to find my way to the next adventure.

There was a night ferry that left for Ancona that evening.  I went up to the ticket counter and asked if Ancona was in Italy.  The woman laughed and told me that it was.  I got the ticket and went out for one final adventure in Split.  Here are a few of the highlights…

This is the final picture of me and my hat.

After all of that happened I got in line to get my baggage and passport checked before boarding the international ferry.  I took off my hat as I neared the front of the line.  Five minutes later I was on the fourth deck of the ship, rustling through my backpack.  My hat was not in there.  My hat was gone.  My first thought was that it probably fell out of my pocket or pack and someone picked it up as they boarded.  The BlueLine was not the only ship boarding that evening so there is a chance that my hat ended up in Greece or Sicily.  Then I was struck by another possibility.  My hat may have blown into the port and sunk to the bottom of the Adriatic.  Either way one thing was clear:  I needed a new hat.

A hat is a necessary item.  They are the simple solution to keeping the sun out of your eyes and off of your face while you are out adventuring.  Always have a lightweight, flexible, broad-brimmed hat with you when traveling.  And if you find one that matches that description and is bright red please tell me where you saw it.  I have been questing after that hat for many miles.

#2- Underwear (Enough Underwear)

Underwear (plural) are a must.  The minimum number allowed for any trip is two (one for wearing, one for washing.  Rotate.  Repeat.).  I recommend more.  I am not saying that you must always wear underwear.  That is for you to decide but there will come a time when underwear will be a must.  These are the times that you prepare for.  Besides, underwear are light and when rolled properly can be shoved into otherwise useless corner space in your backpack.

#3- Passport Holder

Theft and loss are two of many people’s biggest fears while traveling.  These two things even cause some people to stop traveling before they begin.  A simple passport holder can reduce your chances of being the victim of a professional thief or your own forgetfulness.

I carry the pictured passport holder with me any time I travel.  It hangs around my neck.  The holder and the strap are concealed under my shirt and my valuables are in my sight at all times.  Passport holders like mine also have zipper pockets for cash, credit cards, and important documents like boarding passes.  If a pickpocket gets my wallet he will be lucky to walk away with a fiver and since I started carrying my passport holder I spend much less time going through my pockets in line to board a bus or a plane and I like to think that the passengers behind me appreciate that.

So take a passport holder.  Keep your important things in it and keep it attached to you when traveling.  It will give you additional security and help you make friends.

#4- A Blanket

A fleece blanket is a great multipurpose piece of traveling equipment.  The size of the blanket will vary greatly depending on what kind of traveling you are doing and how much space you have in your backpack.  Even when folded and rolled this blanket, which was a standard 6′ x 4′ blanket cut in half, took up nearly half of the large compartment in my backpack.

It was worth its space in gold when I arrived at a Dublin hostel that only had light weight summer sheets left for a January night.  Take a blanket, especially if you are traveling in the winter.  It can also be rolled up and used like a pillow on buses and trains or make any midday snack into a picnic.

To make a blanket travel more efficiently roll it up then take the extra set of shoe laces that you are carrying with you and tie them around the blanket to hold it together.  Maybe I should have mentioned this first but carry an extra set of shoelaces with you when traveling.

#5- Fork and Spoon.

Take a fork or a spoon.  It takes up very little room and just might come in handy like my fork did for me the day I arrived in Montforte, Spain.  That morning I woke up early in a dorm in Santiago de Compostela.  As I packed I began to think about what the Catedral de Santiago might look like in the sunrise.  I had never seen it before noon and I was leaving in a couple hours.  The only reasonable thing to do was pack my stuff, run to the Cathedral, and hope I could still make my train.

  Well, I made the train and it was totally worth it.

So back to the fork and spoon.  After arriving in Montforte I wandered the village for a while.  I passed a couple shops and a bakery.  I had been in such a hurry that I had not eaten all day.  I tried to walk into a shop and the owner pulled down the gate in front of me.  I turned around and saw all the gates closing on all the shops, the bakery, the restaurant on the corner.

The streets cleared and I found a spot on a bench in an empty plaza.  I heaved my oversized, military issue backpack onto the bench and dug through the side pocket.  I pulled out a sealed tin of fish and set it on the bench.  Then I reached back into my pack and got out a white plastic fork.  I cracked open the canned fish and had a picnic in the plaza.

The main advantage of having my fork was that I did not have to get the food dirty with my hands or my hands dirty with the food.  Aside from the obvious convenience of not having fishy smelling hands it is also important to watch what you eat for the sake of your health.  How many things do my hands touch in a day of riding the bus?  A LOT.  I would not want to have most of the things I touch with my hands in my mouth.  So I bring a plastic fork to eat with and when I am finished I wash it and put it back for next time.

Well, those are 5 things that are always with me when I travel.  Look for the next edition of “Action Jack, What Should I Pack?” soon.  In the meantime, let me know what you travel with in the comments section.  Until next time…

From Spain to Portugal, Then Spain, Then Portugal Again (And Tomorrow Spain Again)


This morning I woke up earlier than I had in weeks. I tried to get back to sleep but the fluttering in my stomach and the thoughts racing through my head would not allow another minute of sleep. Today was the day I left Ferreira de Panton. I was headed for Portugal and beyond. So far I have been in Portugal for less than eight adventure-filled hours.

After a few sips of a tea that I forgot to drink and triple checking my bags I was out the door. My more than kind hosts, John and Mick, offered to help me by bringing me all the way to Portugal. As it turned out, they would bring to Portugal, then Spain, then Portugal again.

We stopped at the petrol station on the way out of town and kicked off the trip with a pleasant (albeit broken) conversation with Julio the jolly clerk. After explaining our plans for today and beyond he wished me a “buen viaje” and told me “it was very nice to of meet you.” And just like that the car was full of smiles and we were on the now familiar road to Ourense. After we passed Ourense the smell of smoke began to fill the car. The forest across the river had been lit ablaze and the smoke was falling heavy in the air as far as I could see. The mountains of Galicia had been charred a half dozen times since I arrived two weeks ago. This one seemed closer than the rest and by the end of the day I would find myself nearly in the center of a rager (but more on that later).

The smoke faded as we left Spain and entered Portugal. My first stop in this country was the city of Valence. And my first stop in Valence was the Intermache supermarket. More important was the bakery/cafe in the front of the Intermache. Mick and John had raved about the custard tarts in Portugal one evening as we ate dessert and until this morning I had forgotten about them. After scarfing one down I am sure I will not forget again. The beautiful baked pastries were filled with a sweet custard that, for a brief moment, made me consider pulling out every last cent in my pocket and buying the whole tray. After our tarts and coffee we headed for the real market.

The weekly market in Valenca was the reason we tried to arrange the trip to Portugal on a Wednesday. Every Wednesday the streets of Valenca are filled with cars and the massive open square is filled with tents selling all manner of goods. Clothes, cooking wares, fruits, vegetables, purses, livestock, and seedlings were all on sale. One thing that is not for sale in Valenca is the flexible, wide-brimmed, red hat that I have been searching for since I arrived in Santiago almost three weeks ago. However, I have high hopes that Barcelona will have shops filled with such headgear.

From the market we headed up to the Fortaleza. The Fortaleza is a massive walled compound with restaurants, churches, and practically hatless shops. We stopped at one of the outdoor restaurants to get out of the sun and grab a drink before heading back to Spain for a picnic lunch. As we entered the parking lot of the Fortaleza a man signaled us in. Then he came to collect money for the parking spot. John and Mick told me to ignore him and I remembered another story they had told over dinner one day. All day long various people try to collect fees for parking in this parking lot and they often succeed. The trouble is that this is a free parking lot and these fee collectors are just trying to scam out of town tourists.

After our drink on the patio I ran up the stairs, over the path, and on top of the wall that surround the perimeter of the hill. From this vantage point I could see the mountains and the river that flows through them. By this time it was getting late and in order to catch the two thirty bus we would have to get going to the picnic spot on the other side of the Minho River. We passed the old customs house and were back in the town of Tui, Spain.

We brought the cooler with our sandwiches to the lookout point above the unused public park and pool. From here we saw distant villages of Portugal on the other side of the river. After enjoying my favorite sandwich, chorizo and cheese, we went for a stroll to the cathedral. Now it was getting late and we had to get back to the train station so I could get my ticket and get ready for the ride to Porto.

When we arrived at the train station the ticket office was closed. We asked a gentleman who was sitting at a bench in the cool, thick walled station and he told us that the office opened again at two.

We spent the twenty minutes at nearby outdoor cafe. Then we went back to the station. I told the man that I needed a ticket to Porto at two thirty and the moment the words left my mouth he began shaking his head. For once, I was hoping that he meant he did not understand me. This, however, was not the case. Then he pointed out a small notice that was hanging on a flyer board. It seems that there is a strike going on in Portugal until the end of the month. Due to the strike my train would not be running until next month. I bought a ticket for the 6 o’clock train and wondered what I would do for the extra four hours. My time in Porto is now even more limited so I thought it best to do the most I could with my time in Valenca. As it turns out it was just enough time to have a little adventure before catching the train I am currently riding.

I asked John and Mick to drop me off at the main roundabout so that I could get back to the Fortaleza. They were more than happy to bring me up next to the fort. They parked and helped me get my bags out. I tried to stall them for a few minutes just because I would really miss them and I wanted to try to remember them as best as I could. After making sure that we had enough information to keep in contact in the future (and possibly make a second visit next summer) we said a cheerful goodbye. They drove off with a honk and a wave. I walked away smiling and thinking about the time we had shared. It’s strange how in only a couple weeks I began to feel like they were old friends that I had known for years.

I decided to use my bonus time in Valenca to explore the entire Fortaleza. This meant taking plenty of breaks to sit on the outer edges of the high stone walls and watch the river flow. This also meant finding my way into the beautifully ornamented churches that are betrayed by their simple facades.

After a couple hours I was quite sure I had seen the fortified hilltop so I decided to find a shady spot to eat the sandwich that Mick had insisted I must take because they would not eat it. Like I said these were some more than kind hosts.

I looked for a spot with a view but the view that filled my eyes was not what I had hoped to see. From over the hill I saw smoke billowing up into the air. It was spreading fast and within minutes the sky over Valenca was hazy with a sickly glow. I ran to the top of the hill to see where it was coming from. The origin was just across the expressway and I knew that there was nothing I could do to help at this point. I went down to the expressway and watched as the flames began to burst above the treeline. Then I saw cars, bikes, and pedestrians heading towards the flame on a nearby road. I followed them but before long everyone stopped and turned around. I stood in front of a field watching goats play and butt heads, unaware that they were a half kilometer away from an early demise. I tried to get their attention and after about twenty minutes most of them were standing at my end of the field, which I hoped would give them enough of a head start if the flames did reach their pasture. For a time the smoke grew darker and swirled furiously. Then the black smoke faded to gray, and then white. I had to leave and though the smoke refused to cease completely I was satisfied that the bombeiros were going to soon have the flames under control. By the time I left Valenca, the smoke looked like a thin morning fog.

Note: As I am writing this my train is being surrounded my smoke. I am high in the mountains now and from here I can see two other fires smoking in the distance. The two year drought and rash of arson attacks seem to be destroying the beautiful landscape of northern Spain and Portugal.

So, back to the story- I stopped on top of the Foraleza to eat my sandwich and enjoy the view of the city. I looked at my clock and jumped up to get on to the train station. I was running late and as I got to the main roundabout I tried to remember which way the station was. I guessed and after about fifteen minutes I decided that I had guessed wrong. I saw a man standing outside a petrol station. I asked him if he spoke English and he said he spoke almost none. I asked him if he spoke Spanish and he said he spoke some. I asked where the train station was and he explained that it was very close. He gave me directions and I headed back where I had come from. I spotted the train station and looked at my clock. I had just enough time to run into the store to grab a new toothbrush and toothpaste. I had forgotten mine at Mick and John’s and the thought of not brushing my teeth until I could find a shop tomorrow made me a little disgusted.

I left the shop and bolted for the station. I got there and gathered my bags, which the man at the ticket office held for me due to the inconvenience caused by the canceled train. In Spanish, I asked the man working on the platform which train was going to Porto. My accent must have given me away because he answered in English. I gave him a “thank you very much” and he chuckled a little. I expected that. I always say it like Elvis and people in non-English peaking countries always seem to think it is quite funny sounding.

I caught the train and am now speeding through Portugal, hoping that my room in Porto has not been given away now that I have missed my check-in. It was a day of adventure and good company. I only hope that I can say this about the next week. I am sure I will have adventure but solo traveling can make the kind of camaraderie I have experienced over the last couple weeks something I know not to take for granted. I have some good friends that I hope to see over the next few weeks in Barcelona and Sweden so I think I will have no trouble finding excellent company. Well, I arrive in Porto shortly so there is much to do. Until next time…

P.S.  I have pictures and videos that I will add to this post but I just arrived at my “hostel.”  In reality it is a luxury type hotel that just opened so they are basically giving away rooms for 7 Euros per night to get their name out there.  Also, this city looks amazing at night so I need to get out and enjoy it.  Anyway, more to come.

A Road Less Traveled


This morning I cleared a spot for a new garden.  The new patch of soil will eventually be the home of a dozen or so tomato plants.  It’s too bad I will no longer be here in Ferreira de Panton when the bulbous red fruits blossom but I am happy to have had a chance to help my gracious hosts expand their horticultural terrain.  After that I built them a pit for smoking meats.  Then it was time for some fun in the sun.

Mick has been telling me about a particular hike he has spent years perfecting around here.  He would follow a path until it ended abruptly, as many Galician trails do.  Then he created a map that showed the trails that would connect to form this uninterrupted three and a half hour hike, which peaks with a 360 degree view of the surrounding area.

As you may have guessed after a full day of work and hiking I am quite tired.  So here are some pics from today…

  Most of the trails look something like this.

  This is a good example of many of the older Galician structures that we passed on the way.

  As we rounded the bend and were about to enter a paved road for the first time on our trip we saw this flock of sheep.  Chaos ensued.  Watch it here… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYk3PzL-ass  As the chaos reigned supreme the struggling shepherd employed our assistance to regain control of the sheep.  Basically, we were supposed to act as human guardrails.  This is how that worked out… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRqlz62Ko4s

  After the sheep shenanigans we passed this gate, behind which lies one of the most important historical homes in the area.  Notice the ornamentation above the arch and the coat of arms to the left of it.  It was a hotbed of political activity before and during the Spanish Civil War.  It most assuredly was used to support to the Galician demigod, Franco.

Before reaching the peak of our journey we came across a lot of dogs.  Some were wild and some were domestic.  Some were clean and some smelled of manure.  These two were just plain adorable… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okAk8sv2SxA

As we climbed the final segment before the top Mick made me promise not to look around until we reached the apex.  I agreed and when I opened my eyes this is what I saw all around me…

And here is a slightly too long video of my view… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqjIQ91ceqo

The walk back was filled with pricker bushes, streams, holes dug by wild boars, and dozens of this same scene…

Well, the rest of the night was spent eating a full curry chicken meal and relaxing in the lounge.  Now it is time for a good rest before another full day of work and fun tomorrow.  Until next time…


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