All posts by Mark Ayling

Marko’s #OneDayOffline | New York

I used to be a neo-luddite. In high school, I mocked my father’s dependence on his “crack-berry.” In college, I stood aside while my friends rushed for smart phones. After school I remained proudly analog while teaching English in Spain, a country that still valued life offline – communal lunches with friends, leisurely afternoons paseos, and languid hours in cafes, deeply immersed in conversation.

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Hitchhiking in Spain, 2010

Then I started blogging. Initially, disconnection allowed reflection on my surroundings. I even mused about the irony of trying to blog about staying disconnected.  But what began as a hobby soon became a full-time career as a travel writer and videographer. In 2013, my brother and I won a travel video competition and were thrust into the spotlight. Suddenly we were contractually obligated to produce videos, write articles, craft tweets, and snap Instagram posts from the road. Keeping my old cell phone was not an option. It was time to upgrade.

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My phone has been part of my life ever since. Posting to Instagram is now a daily ritual, checking emails a nervous habit. In Spain, I used to wake up and meditate for twenty minutes. Now I grab my phone and browse Facebook for thirty.

Yet it seems I can’t stop – and neither can anyone else I know. Our lives are increasingly immersed in our technology. The internet has become the “ever-net,” a ubiquitous invisible presence constantly buzzing around us – like The Force, but more distracting.

I used to get a break whenever I would travel abroad. Now I’ve got an international plan with global data.

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This constant distraction affects the quality of our travels. Many travel to get away from daily life, yet we bring our phones with us. Our bodies might be in Bali, but Facebook ties us firmly to home.

That’s partly why Cathay Pacific launched their #OneDayOffline campaign. Cathay Pacific is all about “life well traveled,” and so they encourage travelers to connect with the places they visit by disconnecting from their phones for just one day.

Earlier this month, Cathay Pacific teamed up with Mashable to assemble a dozen travel bloggers in upstate New York and put the idea into action. It’s hard to imagine a group of people more dependent on the internet than full-time bloggers.

In truth, I needed a break. I hadn’t had any time offline in months. I accepted the offer and flew to New York City to catch Mashable’s bus heading to the Hudson Valley.

The bus rolled through auburn hills blanketed in forest of russet and gold, flecked with villages of wooden farmhouses. As dusk enveloped the Hudson Valley, we pulled into our home for the weekend – an wooden farmhouse surrounded by apple orchards. Already, I could feel my attention returning to the moment.mashable_347

I also felt strangely vulnerable. It was nigh Halloween, we were near the setting of Sleepy Hollow, and our farmhouse was ominously located on Cemetery Road. I couldn’t help but mention that it felt like the beginning of a horror movie.

Without our phones,” asked another blogger timorously, “who would call for help?”

I pictured the horrors that could unfold – feeling phantom vibrations, twitching and itching with craving until we discover that one of us had secretly kept their phone – holding out on the rest of us. A violent melee follows. The bus driver returns to pick us up on Sunday, only to find one blogger alone, desperately clutching a bloody smart phone, pacing the lawn in search of signal. Lord of the WiFis.

In all seriousness, the true fear that gripped me is one most keenly felt by bloggers – the mirror of FOMO. Not missing what other people are doing, but the fear that something amazing could happen and we would be without the means of documenting and sharing it.

I wondered, in the social-media world, if you see an amazing sunset but don’t put it on Instagram, did it really happen? What is the value of an experience divorced from it’s social media validation?

***

The next day, I awoke at dawn and clutched my phone, eagerly looking for messages and notifications that accrue each night. Nothing. Airplane mode.

I fell back on my pillow. Instead of distracting myself from my first waking moment, I promised, I will remain present for each moment of this day.

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We started off on the right foot – yoga in a beautifully restored barn. After breakfast, we picking apples from the farm’s orchard. I fed an apple a horse, who slobbered all over my palm.

Instinctively, I reached for my phone to share the moment on Snapchat. No dice. Instead, I turned to my friends and shared the experience with them directly.

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With each passing moment I felt increasingly conscious, more more deeply connected to my immediate surroundings. We went fishing in a brook, watching deer trot by but catching nothing. But we didn’t care. It was chance to get to know the other bloggers and trade stories from our lives on the road.

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mashable_090At lunch, we spread out blankets and picnicked overlooking the Hudson. I absorbed the sound of birds, the smell of the autumn forest, and the taste of the food we enjoyed together. The meal passed languorously. Just like my days in Spain, I followed lunch with a siesta.

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It occurred to me that an archaic word for fun is “diversion”, which is quite an honest word, really – especially in an era where we’ve become so reliant on our phones for just that.

However, there’s a difference between diversion through social media, and diversion by socializing in real life. Browsing our friends’ status updates on Facebook is an incredible way to keep in touch with people all around the world, but it’s not the same as catching up face to face. At some point, consuming social media ceases to be social and becomes addictive.

The truth is that we’re just starting to enter the internet age. Our connection to the net will only become more constant, ubiquitous and invasive. Therefore, we must be more conscious of how, when and why we use it.mashable_349

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Five years ago, a good wifi signal could be rare to find abroad, so they were valued. Now it’s disconnection that’s rare. Perhaps it, too, will become more valuable – like a sabbath for the digital era.

This is truer still for travel, because traveling well is dependent on your ability to fully witness what you experience. A digital detox is a good practice to make sure the world doesn’t pass us by while we’re searching for WiFi.

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The idea wasn’t mine – it’s Cathay Pacific’s. But I like it a lot. And as my life as a travel vlogger continues to quicken in pace and become ever-more dependent on social media, taking a day offline might just become a weekly ritual.

Because if we don’t travel well, what’s the point in traveling at all?

See the video from Mashable below as well as Cathay Pacific’s #onedayoffline blog.

Rolling with the Blackfoot

There is a place in the Blackfoot lands of Alberta called Writing-on-Stone, where the stories of their ancestors are carved into the sandstone walls along the banks of the Milk River. For a tribe whose lands stretched across the great plains of North America, Writing-on-Stone is as sacred as Mecca or Jerusalem, a place where the spirit world and that of mankind touch.

There are countless petroglyphs and pictographs, each telling a different story from a way of life now long gone. It shows the Blackfoot camped out on the river banks, where they would spend the winter while following the buffalo. It tells of the world’s creation, of hunts, of battles, and of the arrival of Europeans. It is said that once the carvings disappear from erosion, their story is done being told.

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“The Blackfoot lived in harmony with the land,” explained Desiree Yellowhorn, a Blackfoot guide at the park. Next to a carving of a woman harvesting meat, she points out where the first Royal Mounted Police carved their names into the sacred wall. “Our ancestors took what they needed from nature, nothing more. They used every piece of the buffalo, from their bones to the coat.”

In the summers, the Blackfoot would gradually guide the bison to large, flat plateaus surrounded by steep cliffs. These places, called “buffalo jumps,” were a secret to the Blackfoot’s survival. After craftily planting branches to creating a funnel towards the cliffs edge, young hunters would spook the rear of the herd, causing a stampede towards the abyss. Once the buffalo ran off the cliff, the women of the tribe would deliver the death knell with a club before harvesting every piece of the buffalo.

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One good hunt would get each tribe through the winter. The pelts were used for warmth, the bones for tools, and the meat was dried and mixed with Saskatoon berries to make an energy-rich meal called Pemmican.

The story of what happened next is the same story of practically every First Nations culture in North America. The white man came, bringing along diseases to which they had no immunity, weapons they could not match, and a worldview that clashed directly with that of the Blackfoot.

Eventually, settlers had hunted the buffalo to near extinction – taking their hides and leaving their flesh to rot, shooting them for sport from the side of trains, or simply slaughtering them to render impossible the traditional way of life on the plains.

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Today, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its contribution to world culture. It is, of course, no longer used. Most Blackfoot live on nearby reservations and no longer live off the land as they once did. The area behind the buffalo jump was long ago parceled into ranches.

During our visit, we were lucky enough to meet with Treffery Deerfoot, a spiritual leader of the Blackfoot community. He traveled to Head-Smashed-In with three generations of his family to give us a demonstration of traditional Blackfoot dances. Everyone, from Treffery to his grandchildren, were decked out in beautiful regalia, singing in their language, dancing the same song as their ancestors did long ago.

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Such a display is no longer an everyday thing. Travelers who come expecting to find Blackfoot walking the streets in buffalo hides are looking for the past. One of the last carvings at Writing-on-Stone was made by Chief Bird Rattler – a picture of the Model T that carried him to the park.

Today, the Blackfoot are a modern people dealing with the challenges of maintaining traditions in the twenty first century. Chief among them is the survival of the language. Almost all Blackfoot speakers are in Canada, but many youngsters are not interested in learning the language.

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Treffery Deerfoot has hope in his grandchildren, to whom he is passing on tradition in the form of songs and dances. And, as long as they are still etched on the wall, the story of the Blackfoot lives on in the Writing on the Stone.

Alberta’s Badlands

I don’t know who came up with the name Badlands, but I like it. To me, the name conjured images of a sparse and beautiful land where outlaws hide from the law, a place best explored by horseback with a bottle of whiskey in hand.

It wasn’t quite like that, but neither was I too far from the mark.

Badlands refer to type of geography like the one below – dry areas where years of erosion have exposed alternating layers of clay, silt, shale and sand. The colors are incredible; stratified shades of rusty deep reds, chalky whites, and thin layers of coal. The resulting terrain often resembles how Mars is depicted in movies.

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In Alberta, they appear suddenly from the plains of wheat and canola, dropping into deep canyons that stretch west into Saskatoon and over the border into Montana and the Dakotas. The grassy tops tumble down into gently sloping ridge lines called coulees. In places they rise into oblong formations called hoodoos, which are hourglass shapes topped with a hard cap of rock.

Little wonder that outlaws did use them as hideaways back in the day. Standing atop a coulee it seems like the badlands go on forever, like some surrealist painting.

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But it’s what lies beneath these formations that brought us out here. 100 million years ago, Alberta had a climate similar to that of Bangladesh – wet, marshy lowlands with lush tropical jungle that made it the perfect habitat for dinosaurs. Herbivores came for the salad bar, and T-Rex came for them.

The erosion that forms the Badlands also revealed dinosaur fossils. Such was the story of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a geologist commissioned by the Canadian government to prospect for the coal deposits that appear as a thin black line in the multi-layered hoodoos. Supposedly he popped around the corner of a coulee and found a dinosaur skull staring back at him.

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Since then, this region of Alberta has become a center of paleontology for experts from around the globe. Alberta has one of the strongest deposits of fossils from the Cretaceous Era, the last one before the mass extinction that ended the days of the dinos. The best fossils are assembled in the Royal Tyrrell museum in Drumheller, which doubles as a fascinating museum and a world-class research center.

Countless fossils continue to be discovered across the province, many of them in large mass graves that reminded me of a dino version of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. What happened? A giant dinosaur war of attrition?

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The reason behind it is more prosaic, explained ranger Jarrid Jenkins at Dinosaur Provincial Park. “100 million years ago, this place looked more like Bangladesh – low lying fluvial areas with a lot of swamps. When dinosaurs fell into the swamps, their skin decomposed but their bones were preserved.”

He led us into a canyon where a live dig was going on. A femur-like bone protruded from the clayish earth, and we spent a little while scraping away sediment with a dentist’s pick and a brush. It was an incredible hand-on experience available only to a few people at a time. But with guided hikes, bus tours and comfort camping nearby, it’s pretty easy for visitors to dive into the dinosaur world.

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After a few days of hiking around the Badlands and capturing a few gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, we decided to round out the trip with a visit to the Atlas Coal mine. As I mentioned, the exploitation of coal and the discovery of fossils in Alberta are very closely connected. Miners were some of the first people to discover dinosaurs, as coal is formed from the lush vegetation that ancient Alberta such an ideal habitat in the Cretaceous period.

The Atlas mine is the last standing tipple in Canada. (In case you didn’t grow up in a mining community, a tipple is the wooden superstructure where miners would sort the coal and tip it into waiting trains or trucks.)

The mine opened just over a 100 years ago, and went through all the history of the province – from the turbulent and violent days of labor organizing, through two world wars, and into the latter half of the 20th century, when the price of coal steadily dropped until the mine shut down in 1979.

“This was a great place to work,” said Bob Moffet, a guide who grew up working in the mine. “I started work when I was 16. My dad was 12 and my grandpa was 8.”

Times had certainly changed since then – and not only in regards to child labor laws. When the mines shut down, the surrounding communities collapsed.

“There were a lot of fires back then,” said Bob with a chuckle and a wink. “Finally, the insurance companies said, ‘If you don’t build your house back up after a fire, we ain’t payin’ out!’”

The historic houses that survived arson were mostly bought up by out-of-towners and shipped in their entirety to bigger cities. The population dwindled, leaving once-lively places like the Last Chance Saloon as little more than historical curios for tourists to enjoy. We stopped in for a beer ourselves, and inspected the black and white pictures, artifacts and bullet holes of an era that would never come back again.

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While the boom-days of coal may have gone forever, there are still many dinosaurs to be discovered. The gradual erosion that forms the coulies gently exposes fossils, fueling ever more scientific exploration of another bygone era, but one that we are only now discovering for the first time.

At our final stop, at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, I walked through the exhibits and marveled at the remains of a dinosaur kingdom that once stood in my place. There were crowd-pleasers like the T-Rex and new discoveries like the “Hellboy” fossil, but the thing that struck me most was the myriad of smaller animals that composed an entire ecosystem that vanished from the earth. Hours flew by quickly, my sense of time humbled by the eons since these dinosaurs lived.

IMG_0260By the time I emerged into the sunlight, I stared upon the landscape with a newfound appreciation for the shortness of life when measured against such fossils. Life could end as abruptly as it did for the last dinosaurs, our entire existence erased for millions of years.

All the more reason, I concluded, to spend what little time we have in beautiful places like these.

Surfing the Basque Country

While protesters rallied in the rain for the release of Basque prisoners (see post), hundreds of surfers gathered down the coast for the annual ZarautzPro. The six-star ASP professional surfing event drew surfers from around the world for the competition, momentarily infusing an international mix of visitors into the sleepy beach town.

My friend Griffin and I drove to Zarautz to check it out. After writing my last post about the Basque/Spain conflict, I was looking for fresh air and something positive to write about. We drove through the deep valleys between San Sebastian and Zarautz, I thought about how this inaccessible geography helped preserve Basque traditions through isolation from Spain and France. And as we came through a tunnel and approached the sea, I remembered how generations of Basques pushed off shore in the ships that would discover the new world and bring it home through trade. Throughout history, Basques have played this balance between isolation and engagement, preservation of tradition and assimilation of foreign ideas, concepts, and – in the case of surfing – cultures.

It was just up the coast in the French Basque town of Biarritz where surfing made it’s European debut in the 60s. But before then, Basque life centered around the sea. They were some of Europe’s early fishermen and evolved into the best sailors and shipbuilders in the Spanish empire. Their water sports include rowing, a sport that developed as early whalers in small row boats would race to port to get the best price for their catch at the market. As our car pulled into Zarautz, I noticed that the town’s coat of arms bears a castle, a lion, and a whale – remnants of this earlier identity.

Today, the image of whales is gone and the beachfront is covered in the logos of surf brands from California, Australia and Europe. The old whaling port sits idly on the east side of the mile-long beach, and now serves as a convenient spot to jump directly into lineup of the best break in town. Many of the local kids, who I imagine once would have been fisherman plying the Cantabrian Coast and the northern waters beyond, now move horizontally along the coast from break to break, traveling from Portugal to France to find the best waves on the lowest budget.

As we got out of the car and walked to the beach, I marveled at the juxtaposition of Basque culture and surfing culture. The former is rooted in geography, shared history and an identity inherited from the traditions of one’s forefathers. The latter culture knows no boundaries, is based on shared interest, and focuses not on your family history, but on what you are doing in the present moment. Admittedly,false surfing identity can be purchased through clothing and stickers (i.e. a “poser”), but the truest surfers earn their identity through talent and achievement. They are two tribes, but of a totally different nature.

Perhaps traditionalists could view surfing as a cultural invasion from abroad, but the two cultures are not entirely exclusive. Despite the Basque reverence for tradition, they have accepted the new sport readily. Their historic love for the sea has swapped the whaling spear for the surfboard and integrated the sport into the local culture. The municipal government sponsored the surfing event, and much of the town’s economy depends on foreigners coming here for their waves. The popularity of surfing has spurred a number of local surf brands who sell shirts saying “Surfing the Basque Country.” Surfing provides another common identity that further unites Basques from Spanish Bilbao to French Biarritz.

I watched people from all over the world coming together to enjoy the sport. The M.C. announced surfer’s scores in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. But no commentary was necessary to appreciate the surfing. The shared sport was the common language.

Then I thought back to the activists from the other day. For them, redefining borders and defending territory is paramount. So much of who they are comes from where they are from, and I appreciate that as an essential part of identity in a world that is becoming more homogenized every year.  But for surfers, national borders are more of a hassle that stand between you and the waves up the coast.

It’s not to say that surfing is going to bring the world peace and love and harmony. It has its shortcomings. I grew up in La Jolla, California, whose surfing culture criticized for it’s localism by Tom Wolfe in The Pumphouse Gang. I remember seeing local surfers picking fights with kids from another part of the same city, simply because they came from 10 miles inland. Close mindedness exists within every identity on the planet.

But more often, surfing transcends all that. Sure, some surfers fight over waves and terrorize tourists. But on the whole it’s a new, international culture that any of us can take part in. In a world of division, it’s one more common culture we can share. And for all the talk of unity between Basques in Spain and France, I’d bet that those who spend the most time across the border aren’t the activists.  They’re the surfers.

War and Peace in the Basque Country

Thirty Basque men, women, children and seniors stand in the rain silently, forming a long human chain in front of the Kursaal Building in San Sebastian. The modern, stylish building stands triumphantly over the beach and the old town, a physical symbol of the Basque people’s opening their doors to the world and a peaceful future. The demonstrators at their door hold pictures of a convicted member of the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, and their message is much less ambassadorial, more personal, poignant, and polemical.

My friends and I pass their long line, reading the signs they hold solemnly to a passing crowd of mixed sympathies and bewildered tourists. I look at the images of prisoners, unintelligible Basque phrases, their red, green and white flag, and the map of the un-official borders of Euskadi, with the label Euskal Presoak etxera, a phrase I now understand to mean, Basque prisoners come home.

Such protests are a common sight in the Basque Country, though when I first arrived here I was unaware of their significance. I made my first trip to San Sebastian while working as an English teacher in a small village in rural, conservative Old Castile, deep in the Spanish heartland. From the languid villages of the meseta, it was difficult to imagine that people in the north were fighting for their independence. I researched the conflict online, discovering a complicated and bloody battle going back centuries in time. Before I left for San Sebastian, the philosophy teacher took me out for a beer and attempted to fill me in on the situation.

He pulled out a napkin and drew the map of the Basque Country, the three French provinces and four Spanish provinces that made up “Euskal Herria,” the unrecognized “Land of the Basque Speakers” straddling the Pyrenees. He then drew the arrows pointing inwards from Spain and France, forming the flag I now saw the protesters holding in the rain. He did not write or explain Presoak etxera.

“If you see this flag, be careful.” he had warned me. “This flag means it’s bearer supports terrorists. It means they support ETA and the attacks they’ve made against Spain – from bombing innocent civilians to assassinating politicians. Avoid any bar that flies the flag in it’s window, and whatever you do, don’t talk politics with anyone.”

I nodded, folded up the napkin and put it in my jacket pocket. I suspected he’d provided me a facile explanation that lacked the profundity of thought expected from a philosophy teacher. I decided to reserve my judgement until I saw the situation for myself.

I saw the flag everywhere in the Basque Country. It hung from windows of homes, from balconies of the old town, from behind the bars of taverns from Bilbao to Biarritz. It was so ubiquitous, I couldn’t believe that everyone who held it was as evil as my co-worker made them out to be. I tried to avoid talking politics as long as I could. But after a few beers at a local tavern where the flag was printed on the napkins, curiosity got the best of me.

“This flag is calling for justice,” said the bartender, leaning over the counter. “When the Spanish arrest a member of ETA, they do horrible things to our people. They torture them, they murder them, and they put the rest in prisons in the most distant corners of Spain, as far away as the Canary Islands [off the coast of West Africa]. We can’t afford to visit our friends and relatives, many of whom we believe are being unjustly held. These arrows mean we want the prisoners to come back here to the Basque Country. To Euskal Herria.”

He looked me gravely in the eyes, pushed off the bar and went back to drying pint glasses behind the bar and talking to the other patrons in Basque. I left my inquiry at that, knowing that the issue was far more complex that I could fathom at that time. I felt the weight of centuries of mutual mistrust and anger pressing down on the shoulders of both this bartender and the philosophy teacher back in Castile.

***

I was unwittingly pushed into the middle of the conflict soon thereafter. Two weeks after returning to small town Spain, the local Guardia Civil detained me and interrogated me on suspicion of being a member of ETA hatching a plot on their local police station (see post here). They had seen me writing notes in my notepad and had followed me for two weeks, during which time I went to the Basque Country. I supposed they had planned to make headlines by thwarting my operation, only to realize I was merely the town’s English teacher.   They released me apologetically, saying “We can’t be too sure these days, you know…with ETA and all.”

Months later, I moved to the Basque Country and took a picture of one of these independence rallies. A local grabbed me hand and stopped me. “Put away the camera,” she said, “People here are going to think you are a spy for the Guardia Civil.” I told her about the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil back in Castilla. She scrunched her face into a scowl and said, “Fascists. Ignorant fascists, the whole lot of them.”

Though I laughed nervously about the irony of the incidents at the time, they revealed a deep misunderstanding and paranoia on both sides of the conflict. During my first year in San Sebastian, I avoided the subject of ETA, learning to celebrate the uniqueness of the Basque region without focusing on the more radical elements of the independence movement.

I fell in love with the Basque Country. There I discovered a nation without a country, a people with a long history largely unknown to the world, and a culture that drew me in and mesmerized me. I realized that if so many cultural treasures lie hidden within well-trodden Western Europe, the world beyond the West must hold enough diverse cultures to fill a lifetime of discovery.

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Photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza

And so now, when I see the demonstrators standing in the rain, holding up pictures of convicted terrorists, I understand that the faces in these photos are their sons, sisters, cousins and friends. The conflict is personal for everyone involved.  There are bloody hands and innocent lives lost on both sides of the battle. Many heated conversations have made me realize that the longest continuous conflict in Europe can not be solved by me alone.

Then I think back to the philosophy teacher who told me not to talk to the bartender. I think about the Guardia Civil and the activist, and the chasms that separate their perspectives. Then I realize that these divisions and misunderstandings are preserved by silence.  And so I keep talking and writing, because it is only through communication that we can hope to forge the mutual understanding we need to build peace.

Deja Vu: Buses & Hitchhiking Across Aragon

This morning I decided to leave Barcelona and head north to visit my good friend Griffin in the Basque Country. I felt listless in Barcelona. It had been over two weeks since I’d stepped off the ship, and I’d been bouncing around Italy and Spain ever since. In Barcelona I’d been in a 6-bed dorm for a week when one of my roommates broke open my safe and stole part of my summer’s wages. I felt betrayed and alone, and I yearned to be with a friend I could trust in a city that felt familiar.

I phoned Griffin and told him I was coming to San Sebastian, our home away from America. I took a bus out of Barcelona and immediately pulled out my laptop and put on a movie as we drove along the base of the Pyrenees. All morning I had been meditating on the balance between freedom and solitude so I watched Into the Wild, the true story of a college graduate who leaves his friends and family behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness by himself.

Instead of finding existential truths in solitude, he ends up eating poisonous berries and dies alone. I watched the film with rapture, making all the inevitable comparisons between his nomadic experience and mine. As the protagonist lay dying, he forces his emaciated fingers grab a pen and write one last message: “Freedom is only real when shared.”

The bus stopped just as the film finished. I looked out the window and felt deja-vu. I recognized our location, desolate truck stop about twenty miles outside of Zaragoza, in the dry foothills of Aragon. As I alighted and felt the warm, dry air coming off the bald brown hills, for a moment I felt I was somewhere off the 395 in California, taking a pit stop with my family on the way to Mammoth Lakes.

I had been here before, traveling in the other direction in another set of circumstances. We were surrounded by semi-trucks from across Europe, their drivers taking naps in the cabins behind the wheel. I saw myself from 22 months ago, as a dust-covered English teacher hitchhiking from San Sebastian to Barcelona. I had walked up to the truck doors and asking the drivers if they could give a humble traveler a lift towards Barcelona. I had nodded patiently after polite refusals in Czech, Hungarian, French, Spanish and German before a car picked me up and raced me towards Barcelona.

It seemed like I was a different person then. Had I really changed so much? I remember the decision to set out hitching quite clearly. I had wanted to escape society and be on my own. I had been settled as an English teacher in San Sebastian for over a month and a half, and I had been so busy making friends that I had yet to leave the city to explore Spain – a long time by my standards. I had felt my youthful restlessness giving way to stability, maturity and the responsibility of work. I was starting to put down roots and I felt the urge to move. I bought a map of Iberia and imagined adventures between my home on the northern coast and the distant towns of Seville, Lisbon, and Barcelona.

I jumped at the first opportunity – a four day weekend, plenty of time for adventure. I bid farewell to my roommates and walked out my door to the gas station on the outskirts of town. I held a cardboard sign in my hands – BCN. After an hour of talking to drivers, I got a ride to Pamplona.

It had been a trip to momentarily escape from the life I was building in San Sebastian. I was sharing an apartment with seven other people, and though I was enjoying their company, I felt I didn’t have a moment to myself. I yearned the solitude of the road, the emptiness of Spain’s meseta in which I hoped to hear the truths of life so often muffled by the chaos of the cities and the murmur of friends.

It had taken me two days to reach the gas station where I now stood, almost two years later. I had waited nearly six hours to get a ride out of Pamplona. My first lift took me only 20 kilometers. By dusk, I found myself standing on a thin piece of shoulder between an empty two lane highway and acres of vacant farmland. In the emptiness of the meseta, I’d listened for the words of wisdom I’d sought. I only heard trucks passing by without slowing down. I smelt manure, I felt hungry and tired, and I wondered why I hadn’t just taken the bus to Barcelona.

Two years later, I smiled looking back on that moment. Despite all the impractical romanticism of that adventure, I’d finally found a ride with a semi truck whose driver told me he’d take me all the way to Barcelona in one shot, but I told him I’d wanted to see Zaragoza. When he said he couldn’t get off the highway with his 18-wheeler, I insisted on being dropped off on the edge of a six-lane freeway at midnight and hiking between the off-ramps through the bush into the center of town. It had been my own, more modest attempt at going into the wild.

This time I’d elected to take the bus for 30€. But I hadn’t hitchhiked then to save cash. I’d done it for the adventure, to open up the possibilities waiting between A-B, chance encounters I knew I could would not find in my assigned seat on the tourist bus. That adventure turned out to be the first of many larger steps, culminating in my decision to pack up my life in Spain, cut myself loose completely and try to work as a sailor on a ship sailing around the world.

It made me think about what had changed within me since then. Perhaps the quiet emptiness of the sea had reminded me of the joys of coming into port, to the warmth of civilization and company. Maybe after so many wild adventures, the restlessness of youth was finally leaving my bones.

I felt happy with today’s decision. The first time I’d passed through this station, I was fleeing society for the open road. Now I was beginning to appreciate the necessity of company and the folly of solitude for it’s own sake.

The bus driver honked the horn and we re-boarded the bus. I looked back on the truck stop, doubting that my hitching days were over, but promising that the next time I stick out my thumb, I’ll do so in the company of another kindred soul.

Adios, siesta

 

August in Europe is the month of rest. In Spain, while the big-box stores remain open, mom and pop businesses everywhere are closed as families take off for a few weeks of relaxation. Even here in a big city like Barcelona, owners scrawl a note on the window, draw the shutters, lock the door and let the letters pile up in their mailbox.

The message to the tourist is clear: Although more tourists come here in August than any other month, I’m taking this time not to make money, but to be with my family and give myself a much-needed break. Sorry for the inconvenience, but family is more important.

Long vacation time, restricted work hours, and small family-owned businesses are the hallmarks of the welfare state of Western Europe, a system that is under threat as Spain sinks deeper into debt. But in a land where the word “crisis” hangs like a black cloud over the peoples’ sunny disposition, it seemed a bit odd that people are electing not to work when 25% of the population is unemployed. As I walked the deserted streets of L’Eixample during the lunch hour, I though that perhaps this is the time to break with tradition and perhaps give some work to young Spaniards, about half of whom are unable to find jobs.

Times of crisis are hard on everyone, and yet the bars and restaurants of Barcelona seemed rather packed to my eyes. Spaniards are renowned for living life publicly, preferring to share wine and tapas in a bar with friends rather than getting takeout and watching TV at home. But eating a leisurely lunch at home with their family remains a most cherished institution, with many shops closing between 2-5PM for the famous siesta.

But this is changing. Spaniards are making small economic choices that will have impact on their society for years to come. I notice locals skipping over mom-and-pop stores for the cheaper chinos shops, mini-markets of low-price bric-a-brac run by Chinese immigrants. They make big purchases at the malls on the outside of town, they’re starting to skip the local fruit shop, baker and butcher for a single stop at an American-style supermarket. And as the Spanish schedule becomes increasingly tied to the rest of the world, Spaniards are watching their precious siesta evaporate before their eyes.

I’m here in Barcelona on a rather tight budget, so I was scouring the town in search of a filling meal for a decent price. After a few days of living off pasta, sandwiches and tortilla de patata, I found a local restaurant chain called FresCo that had an all-you-can eat buffet for 7.45€. It looked like the Spanish equivalent of SoupPlantation, but I figured one big meal here could hold me over for the whole day, so I went inside.

There was a line of white-collar Spaniards shuffling through the line along the salad buffet. First we loaded a chunky, partially-frozen gazpacho soup into our bowls, then piled plates high of the first vegetables I’d had in a week. Classic Spanish dishes were served en mass, big bowls of which rested on ice cubes as we made our way, single file towards the cash register.

I paid, ate my salad and watched the spectacle of so many Spanish workers eating alone, unceremoniously scarfing down classic Spanish dishes in silence, hurrying to fill their stomachs before returning to the office. The slow traditional lunch of the Spanish village was gone, the family absent, the post-meal siesta impossible.

The Spanish family meal, broken by austerity and the pressing demands of the international community. The three o’clock rush passed and people started filing back to the office. Inboxes were filling up with messages from customers across Europe expecting answers within the hour.

Some say this processes is inevitable and irreversible. Others say it is time to stand up to the rest of the world and preserve the old way before it is too late. Sitting in Fresco, I wasn’t sure which side was right. I just knew that I as I had stood on the empty streets of Barcelona with 20€ in my pocket, I’d made the economic decision to eat at FresCo, but I yearned for something with more soul.

I sat alone with my decision, poking at the rubbery shellfish in my pale paella, wondering if the European life I so loved was headed towards a FresCo fate. As we ate in silence under a Top 40 soundtrack, I sensed that others were thinking the same.

As I got up to leave, my eyes caught the gaze of a Spanish yuppie about my age who had been scarfing down the last of his dessert. For a moment he seemed to come out of a deep trance. No words were exchanged, just a common sense of hunger, loss, and gui

Sketch from Barcelona

Crises bring out both the best and the worst in people. Two days ago I was robbed here in Barcelona – an example of crisis bringing out crime. But the following day I witnessed a bizarre scene in a local bookshop as I was interviewing the clerk, something that inspired hope.

The Clerk and I sat behind the desk, talking about the economic situation in Spain as he rang people up and sent them on their way with a complementary bookmark and a smile. He was informed on the current events and he was proudly telling me about ways that local people were coping with the pressure of the crisis.

“Take a look at this,” he said, pulling up a webpage on the store computer. “This is an old leper colony on the outskirts of the city. It’s been abandoned for decades. A couple of years ago, when people started getting kicked out of their homes, a band of urban farmers went up there and took it over. In a short amount of time they’ve been able to build up a thriving collective farm within the city limits of Barcelona, all of which is based upon local organic farming techniques.”

Then a middle-aged woman walked into the store with a big folder of documents, and paused before the cash register, smiling at us. The Clerk paused and asked her how he could help her.

“Hello, I’m the Customer Service Representative from Movistar [Spain’s largest telecom provider, repeatedly voted the most unpopular company in Spain for it’s poor customer service, hidden fees, and high prices]. I’ve been told that you have registered a complaint with our company, is that so?”

The Clerk stiffened up a bit, and adopted a somewhat sassy attitude.

“Yeah, that’s right. We complained because suddenly our internet stopped, saying that we hit some sort of data limit when this certainly wasn’t the case, we couldn’t get online for a week and we don’t see why we should be paying for a whole month’s service when we can’t even get the repair guy to come out for over ten days…”

They had shifted from Spanish to the regional language of Catalan and I struggled to understand what they were saying. But the gist of the problem was clear – the small business felt it was getting hammered by the big, impersonal company during a time when they needed as much help as they could get.

I looked away and tuned out, trying not to eavesdrop on the financial particulars of the situation.

Then something remarkable happened.

In the midst of the Clerk’s diatribe, just as his frustration was reaching a crescendo, the Customer Service Representative dropped her folder onto the desk, removed her spectacles and leaned across the table to us.

“Listen, I understand what you’re telling me,” she paused, elbow on the desk, nodding her head. “Trust me, I get this all the time. Do you think I actually enjoy working for these guys? This job is a mierda.”

She placed one arm on her hip and searched the clerk’s eyes for compassion.

Joder, five years ago, I was a real estate agent,” She continued. “And, well…we all know what happened to the real estate business in Spain. It went to the shitter. I had no job. No one would hire me because I was too old. The only people that would give me a chance was Movistar.”

The Clerk nodded his head, and it seemed that his initial hostility had melted away in light of her honest confession.

“Now I’ve been with this company for two years, only because they give me just enough to get by and they help me save for retirement. I live alone in an apartment I can barely afford. I’m embarrassed to tell my children how hard I’m struggling. Who knows what will happen in two months. Perhaps they fire me. Then, what would I do? Move back in with my mother, who now has seventy six years? I’d be running around the streets of Barcelona selling whatever I could. Hell, I don’t know. Shining shoes for businessmen, selling waters to tourists, selling fucking marijuana – anything!” She laughed, and her face had shifted from fear to disbelief to something resembling a detached amusement with her fate. “¿Sabes?”

Si, si, ya lo sé.” said the clerk. For a moment, nothing more was said, she simply stared directly into my eyes with that hand on her hip, biting her lip, her eyes open, disarmed, and totally vulnerable.

As a tourist with a fresh paycheck I was limited to being an observer to her situation. I felt I had to say something. “Así es la cosa,” I muttered, trying to understand how she felt, a middle class family woman suddenly humbled by invisible forces beyond her control.

She smiled at us and straightened up, seeming to collect herself. “Si, así es. Anyways,” she picked up her folder and put her glasses back on, “Cosas de la vida. So, yeah, we’re sorry about the delay in addressing the problem. We’ll send someone over first thing next week. You guys take care, ok?”

“We will,” said the clerk, offering her his hand. “Have a good weekend. Cuídate,

And with that she opened the door and left, walking uphill to her next appointment.

The Anarchist Bookshop of Barcelona

There is a little anarchist bookshop in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, just off Las Ramblas. It is an anachronism of a bygone era. It sits beneath towering tenement houses on a road so narrow that the laundry drying from the fifth story balconies almost totally blocks the sun. I felt like I was wandering the streets of Europe from 100 years before, when the sky was still grey from the smoke of industrialization and the windows wept misery into the filthy, unpaved streets.

 

I hardly expected the shop to be open. It was the peak of the August tourist season when most shops closed for vacation. I didn’t expect anyone to be working, let alone an anarchist.

 

The facade was painted red and black, the colors of the revolution that’s been coming for over a century. Outside was a cork board to which the proprietors had affixed numerous cartoons, quotes and questions probing passersby towards an uprising against the oppressors. I peeked around the corner into the window and walked inside, surprised upon entry.

 

I’d expected a young, aggressive punky Catalan to greet my collared shirt with stares. Instead, I found a pudgy septuagenarian with a well-kept salt and pepper beard, wearing an olive colored shirt and drab slacks like a self-imposed uniform. He nodded and me, then returned to leaning pensively over a wooden desk pouring over a recent title on the Spanish Civil War, surrounded by rows of neatly organized books on revolution.

 

I smiled back, moving quickly to the back row to browse the titles. The covers were bold and aggressive. Between the rows of books were black and white photos of the CNT anarcho-syndicalist rallies of the turn of the century, images of moustachioed men in overalls waving flags before Barcelona’s principal plazas swelling with the ranks of workers. Large color posters from the 1930s calling citizens to unite and take up the fight against the fascist forces of Franco.

 

Anarchism, something I had previously associated with my adolescent punk phase, was alive in these pictures, not as a form of teen angst, but as a popular ideology.

 

“Interested in any one in particular?” he asked above the purring fan.

 

I sat down and told him that I was doing research on the subject for a report on the history of anarchy in Spain. I told him I was curious that as to why Spain was one of the few countries where anarchist ideas were put into practice at the turn of the last century.

 

“The people in Spain have always lived in misery,” he told me, stroking his beard and exhaling a stale breath of pipe tobacco. “It has been like this for centuries. A few rich families controlled everything while the peasants starved. So when the anarchist philosophers came here in the 19th century, we saw the truth in their words.”

 

I asked him to explain the tenants of anarchy. He told me that they didn’t believe in power or authority, preferring instead self-organization and autonomy without the intervention of rulers. I told him power naturally existed, if not simply by the unequal distribution of physical strength.

 

“There is a cartoon I like. It is an image of a big fish eating up lots of little fish. Then another picture of a lot of little fish teaming up to eat the big guy.” He smiled smugly.

 

A man walked into the shop with his young wife.
“Hello, do you have any children’s books here?”

 

“No.” He turned back to me and continued telling me about the class struggle. The couple walked out.

 

I asked him to tell me about Anarchism at its peak in Spain at the turn of the last century. His chest puffed out of his olive shirt as he told me about the rallies, of boycotts against raising the price of the trolley a single peseta, of taking over factories, of the era when people defined themselves by their ideology. It was better that way, he said.

 

“But it was the competition of these ideologies that ended in Civil War.” I said, referring to those bloody years between 1936-1939 when Spain’s conservatives felt the leftists had gone too far and staged a military coup that plunged the country into a bloody fratricide.

 

“We had to defend ourselves. When we tried to take back control of the factories, the industrialists hunted us down with hired gunmen. We had no choice.”  He let out a sigh and leaned forward.  “The world has always been the big versus the small. Look over history and you’ll see that nothing changes.”

 

“That’s rather nihilistic. Then why do anything at all?”

 

“I don’t think we should try to change anyone else.”

 

“Don’t you ever want to be the majority?”

 

“Never. Anarchy is about not having to live at the end of some powerful guy’s pointed finger. Other people can do what they want. We anarchists just team up with other like-minded people and live how we want to.”

 

He looked up at the old pictures of the rallies, perhaps for reassurance. I sensed he was tired from years of the struggle, and yet it was the cause that gave his life meaning. I looked into his eyes and asked him how it felt to be an aging anarchist.

 

“There are fewer and fewer of us every year,” he sighed. “Just a few old farts at the international conventions. Not like back then. Nowadays the kids don’t know what they’re doing. They live in this filthy occupied houses, running from the cops every two weeks. It’s crazy. That’s not what anarchism is about. It’s about bringing dignity to the workplace. But the kids don’t know anymore. They just don’t care.”

 

We spent another hour debating political philosophy, then I thanked him for his time and got up to leave. I stepped outside and walked towards Las Ramblas, feeling like I’d jumped out of a time machine as I passed the museum of modern art. There were dozens of skaters practicing moves, perfecting their latest lines, high-fiving each other and stomping their boards after a particularly well-executed trick. Instead of the A of anarchy they wore the international brand names of skating.

 

I sat down to watch and listen. They were all different countries and they spoke a skater patois of trick names, brands and pros, managing to find a common language to compare boards, bearings and shoes. Was this the generation that so disappointed the anarchist? How would he see them? Apathetic? Depoliticized? Perhaps they were free of ideology, but that is what allowed them to bond with other skaters from around the world. I wondered if a lack of ideology freed them from divisive thinking.

 

A security guard came out of the museum and told them to stop. He pointed a finger at them menacingly and poured out a bottle of water before the entrance. They smiled and him, laughed and kept rolling by.

 

And so while injustices continued all around the world, inside the bookshop the anarchist studied philosophy, and outside the skaters just focused on perfecting their lines, landing that elusive trick and riding away with style.

Donostia Dive Bars – Night Life in San Sebastián, Spain

Originally Published on MatadorNights

San Sebastian, Spain is an elegant city. These places are not. This guide will show you a grittier side of Spain’s most elegant seaside city that most tourists don’t see.

San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is at once very touristy and extremely local. Foreigners and donostiarras tend to run in different circles and most visitors never escape the warren of touristic bars in the parte vieja (old town). It took me six months of asking around before I moved beyond the anglophone bubble into tabernas where locals go to get down.

I’ve posted the fruits of that half-year search here. Most nights begin with eating pintxos and move quickly into bar-hopping bacchanalia. So I’ve put the pintxo spots first, most of which close around eleven. The other seven bars close around 3AM.

Between heavy metal, live music, and pintxos, you’ll find the trouble you’re looking for here.
La Mejillonera

When partying, I always start at the Mejillonera around 9PM. Each night, this busy seafood joint buzzes with locals slurpin’ down €3 plates of mussels and patatas bravas (potatoes with secret sauce) – hence the floor covered in beer and discarded shells.

Cheap food, free bread, and 1-liter catchis of beer for €3.60 makes this the ideal place to fill your stomach and kick-start your buzz.

Calle Puerto 15, Parte Vieja

Bar Gorriti

Most of San Sebastian’s pintxo bars are quite fancy. Bar Gorriti is not. Vagrants and working men alike come here for pintxos and drinks well within their price range. Local tip: maximize your bar-hopping budget by ordering a half-beer, called a zurrito.

San Juan, 3, Parte Vieja

Juantxo Taberna

Shifting from food to party, we have Juantxo Taberna. Famous for their €3 bocadillos (submarine sandwiches), Juantxo’s is always brimming with donostiarras drinking cañas (pints) of beer at any time of day. As dining shifts to drinking, the boisterous crowd flows into the street.

Calle 6, Parte Vieja

The Port

In fact, boozing in the street is essential to a night out in San Sebastian. Though technically illegal, outdoor pre-parties are an institution warranting their own name, the botellón.

Thrifty locals converge at the port between 11PM and 1AM before hitting up pricier bars. Follow their lead and make yourself a kalimotxo – equal parts of €1 boxed wine and Coca-Cola, served with ice in a plastic cup. Yum.

Parte Vieja

Hamabost

If it’s after midnight and you’re properly buzzed, you can head to the Parte Vieja for more trouble, starting with Hamabost. This place is perfect for knocking back chupitos (shots) while overlooking the Plaza de la Constitución as the DJ jams the deep cuts of classic rock. And there’s plenty of space in case you’re rolling deep after the botellón.

Plaza de la Constitución, 15, Parte Vieja

Zunbeltz

Next, you can grab the baddest-ass dudes from your crew and go to Zunbeltz, San Sebastian’s most nefarious metal bar. The above-average amount of hair, leather, and facial piercings of its patrons makes it easy to spot.

Stepping inside is like entering a time capsule from 1982 where guitar solos and stiff whiskeys drown out the shitty euro-pop of nearby discos.

Pescadería, 12, Parte Vieja

Calle San Juan de Bilbao

Calle San Juan de Bilbao is not everyone’s cup of tea. The street’s overt Basque nationalism might put some people off, but the half-dozen bars here are as local as it gets.

Either way it’s wise to read up on the Basque Country’s political situation before visiting. Crowds tend to migrate between Herria Taberna, Suhazi Taberna and their smaller neighbors. All are safe bets.

Akerbeltz

Akerbeltz is a gay-friendly bar that’s a good time for anyone. This local favorite is a stone-hewn grotto centered around a marble horseshoe bar, replete with Neolithic cave art and drinks strong enough to knock you into the stone age.

In summer the party spills out into the nearby staircase. Feel free to do the same.

Calle de Mari, 19, Parte Vieja

Le Bukowski

Up for a hike? Leave the parte vieja behind and cross the river to the offbeat barrio of Egia, home to Le Bukowski. This popular dive is famous for live music, good tunes and great times – and the highest concentration of skinny jeans and plaid shirts in town.

The young, welcoming crowd puts down €2 beers ’til 5AM — two hours later than any other bar on this list. Weekend ambiance rotates between non-techno dance parties and live music (usually with €5 cover). Check out the events calendar here.

Calle de Egia, 18, 20012, Egia

Leize Gorria

If everyone drank at bars like Leize Gorria, perhaps the world would know peace. The bar’s Uruguayan owners are fighting the good fight from their subterranean casa cultural, a “free and open forum for self-expression and intercultural exchange.”

There’s live music all weekend, but Monday and Thursday nights’ Jam Sessions best embody their faith in the universality of music. Anyone can pick up a guitar and chant down Babylon with the crowd — including you. Don’t be fooled by the empty ground-level bar. The real party is underground.

Calle Zubieta 9, La Concha

Koh Tao

When you eventually rise to the sunlight, wash away your hangover with a cafe con leche and a slice of tortilla at San Sebastian’s hippest cafe-cum-bar, Koh Tao. Jump in the ocean, take a siesta, and start all over again. Repeat enough times, and you may never leave San Sebastian.

Calle Bengoetxea 2, Centro Romantico