Looking over Granada

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bewitching Bordeaux

When I made my way to Paris it was after a brief stint in Bordeaux, my first taste of France. The city was beautifully decorated in Christmas spirit. A large Christmas market was being constructed. Large planks of painted green plywood lay on the ground next to a pile of carpenter’s tools. Busy workers shouted at each other in heavy French accents trying to accomplish all they could before the stars and moon became insufficient light. Tinsel and other shiny objects were strewn across populated streets, and the smell of cider cast a spicy aroma through the air. Yellow and white ornamental stars shone bright in trees that encompassed a small park. In the center of the park a pond surrounded a fountain with heavy greenery praising a statue. Smitten couples swaggered across a low wooden bridge and others whizzed by on their bicycles. The night was busy, but not enough to deny the lustful claws of Bordeaux. 
Cathedral Saint-Andre
People were friendly and eager to know my story; where I was from and why I was there, completely contradicting the pompous French stereotypes. Whenever I told them I was from San Francisco their eyes lit up with a curious fascination. When I told them I was close to Sonoma County, the Wine County, they understood why I had stopped through; to pay my respects. Bordeaux is the wine mecca of Western France with almost 300,000 acres of vineyards. They produce red and white blends that are infamous around the world. I wasn’t passing through the country without savoring a glass of big, bold Bordeaux, in Bordeaux. I enjoyed my glass in a plaza admiring the Bordeaux Cathedral, Saint-Andre, resurrected in 1906 by Pope Urban II. In between drags of a cigarette, I arched my neck to contemplate the brilliance of the Tour Pey-Berland, a beautiful and intricate bell tower constructed for the archbishop in 1440. Perhaps the most fascinating observation was the people surrounding me. Bums were scouring the plaza, asking for spare smokes and change (though nobody seemed to notice or care). People danced frantically with conversation, holding a smoke in one hand and a wine glass in the other. It was midday, and again the streets seemed bustling with a subtle contradiction of peace.    
Bordeaux oozes romance and quickly became one of my favorite cities, which says a lot after coming from San Sebastian, a quiet coastal surfer city in North Western Spain with arguably some of the best food in the world. While enjoying a quick view of this city’s surface, there were some complications. Apparently there aren’t many travelers that backpack through Bordeaux, with that said, there were hardly any hostels. In fact, there were none. My travel guide book had failed me. A bit of advice: before you go on an excursion to an unfamiliar part of the world, make sure the guide books you buy are up to date. It will save you some grief. The one hostel I looked up was no longer in existence. While I walked by the hostel several times, circling the block and hoping the sign that said “under renovation” was an illusion, I asked several people of its whereabouts, most of which offered nothing but a confused expression. A taxi driver even pulled over at his own will and pointed me in the direction of the elusive hostel. As I walked to the top of the building it was evident that it was out of business. Walls were busted through, sheetrock lay on the ground in shambles, and old chairs and desks were turned upside down. The sign had not lied, my book had. So I stumbled down the street asking again if there were any hostels. With every desperate plea I received the same pitiful answer, “no.” I suddenly remembered my back up plan (because every backpacker needs one). I wrote down the address of a fairly affordable hotel on a napkin just in case this happened. I pulled the napkin out of my pocket and flagged down a taxi. Fifty euro later I arrived exhausted and elated. The room was the size of a closet, but it was my own room and not a hostel. Although the taxi driver had most likely ripped me off, relief possessed my body and I toppled down on the hard hotel bed.

Garonne River
My two days there were beautiful none the less. I walked the city alone and admired the sights through my camera lens. I stumbled upon the Monument aux Girondins fountain, one of my favorites during the entire trip. A fountain within a fountain, this grandiose monument features a nautical army of stallions led by a powerful man pointing a trident into the air. The fountain honors two of Bordeaux’s greatest men, philosopher and former Mayor of Bordeaux Michel de Montaigne, and Charles Louis de Montesquieu, one of the architects of the "century of the lights." He was not only an intellectual, but also a winegrower (http://www.virtourist.com). I made my way towards the Garonne, a lengthy canal with four bridges that cross it, creating ports in and out of the city. The lights bordering the bridges reflect in the dark water that creates a mesmerizing affect. I walked down the Rue Sainte-Catherine, the city’s main shopping strip. People littered the streets, admiring decorations and contemplating gifts. The giant courtyard of the Place de la Bourse was packed with teenagers and artists; skateboarders skated by deviously while kids surrounded the fountain like a pack of crows. A train rode through the bustling streets in front of the Grand Theater, where patrons formed a line awaiting a much anticipated theatrical performance. Diners dined and wine glasses clinked to the sounds of the streets, it was busy and serene. I took a detour back to my hotel, zigzagging through alleys and narrow cobblestone streets. I bought two tall cans of Heineken and surrendered to my unknown path. Through distorted eyes I noticed a small pastry shop. Inside were pastries I’d never even seen, or could ever imagine. I contemplated hiding somewhere to be locked in overnight. Instead I just pointed to the first thing I saw, a chocolate covered pastry filled with a cream that was oozing out the sides. I swayed blissfully back and forth in the dark alleys of Bordeaux, my eyes crossed, my teeth sharp for mystical mayhem, ready to devour the night.

Delicious Paistry

A drink was called for. I went to a café on the corner from my hotel. I quickly befriended the French bartender, whom became my tour guide. At first we had very brief conversation through broken English and French. She was very direct and blunt, asking “Why do you talk to me? My English is horrible.”

“Because you are pretty, and I don’t know anyone.” She served me a couple more drinks, and we agreed to meet the next night so she could show me around. Once again it was these friendly gestures that expelled all wrongful French stereotypes. We met at her café. She treated me to a drink and I ordered a cheeseburger. One thing about France, it is not cheap. The burger was expensive, around ten euro, but it was the best burger I had on my entire trip (Madrid is a close second). The meat was tender with rich, French cheese spilling out the sides. The bun seemed like it was just baked, warm and soft to perfection. The toppings weren’t overbearing and it had just the right amount of mayonnaise. This was one of the first burgers I had where it didn’t need any modifying. This set the precedent for the rest of the night. We went out to a reggae bar, a small swarthy dive bar that smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. The music grew gradually louder towards the back of the bar, near a small flight of stairs. If you went up there was a dance floor with small picket fence that looked over the bar. Downstairs featured the bathrooms and another bar with a sparkly dance floor and giant horizontal mirror. We ordered our drinks, a mojito that was poured from a tap (apparently mojitos are extremely popular in France, and they found a genius way to expedite making them) and a whiskey and coke, and then we entered the void of the lower story and danced on the sparkly floor. The mirror swallowed us. We were merely silhouettes dancing in another dimension; two strangers, born into entirely different worlds, merged as one. We danced until the sparkles faded, the mojitos ran dry, and the mirror reflected the sky.  

The next morning she picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the train station. We said our goodbyes and I was off to Paris where I would embark on another quest of seeing one of my musical idols, Fink, in a small industrial part of the city that might not even exist. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Man Who Walked Malaga

Malaga, Spain
            People die and their stories live on. It’s what we leave behind that creates our legacy. Whether it’s through journal, music, video, or people, we need not only to share our stories so we won’t be forgotten, but also to inspire us. As Joan Didion once said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This quote resonates with the world. A world that has existed through various forms of life, one who has witnessed tragedy and manslaughter; a world who has seen camaraderie defeat all odds to change mankind. None of these historic achievements would mean anything if it weren’t for the stories they were inspired by, and the stories they passed on.
            A man walked in from the rain. As the bells jingled against the glass door everybody paused. There he stood, a mammoth of a man crouched over the receptionist’s desk. His tall body could barely stand in the walk way. Nothing could be heard but the rain tapping against the windows. The dainty, homely hostel never seemed so small or timid. His square jaw embodied the defining and stern characteristics of his face. His high cheek bones resembled a stoic, Eastern European decent. He raised one of his large paws and grappled the bright orange beanie from his head. A shine glistened from his bald dome. His gaze still set on one single man, paying no attention to his surroundings. Everyone else bore an expression of concern as the man slowly lowered himself to the receptionist. When he spoke it was of a soft whisper. Everyone’s tension eased, wondering what he was speaking. The man at the desk was overly compliant, shaking his head erratically, appeasing and granting any wish this man desired. He quickly grabbed the keys and escorted the giant to his room. The man’s gaze was still fixated on the receptionist as they both walked up the creaking stares. Still no sound was made except for the creaky floorboards that screamed every time this man took a step. The stranger entered his room and shut the door. The receptionist stood outside afraid to move. A gulp moved his Adam’s apple slowly up and down his throat. Still, the only sound was the soft pat of the rain hitting the windows.
            It was like a snake bit our tongues. We didn’t dare talk. The receptionist went back to his desk. The cook continued preparing our chicken curry dinner. I kept on writing. Our heads were down, focused on our tasks. The silence was broken by an intruder coming down the stairs. There stood a bald man. Our breaths were held but he was not the stranger, he was a friend who failed to witness the giant because he was sleeping in his room. His ignorance finally broke the tension. “What the hell is going on?” He asked in a Dutch accent, feeling the uncomfortable gloom that plagued us. He sat down on the couch, looking into my eyes, soaking up the fear that they displayed. He didn’t say another word. The receptionist slowly walked over to our area. He looked towards the door where the man was staying, just up the first flight of the creaky stairs. He then turned his head back to us and his trembling lips spoke. “He asked for a free night. Said he was on a journey and had no money; said he was hungry, too.” We all nodded our heads in support of his decision to let him stay. There was no way anybody would deny this man anything. He could have asked me for my entire life savings and I would have handed it over without question. Just then a door opened and our attention quickly turned. The tall, mammoth of a man appeared in the light. Though, now fully illuminated and changed, he seemed smaller and less threatening. He was wearing a black thermal shirt and tan cargo pants with suspenders holding them up. Under his lanky arm nestled a computer. It was a humorous sight compared to his intimidating image before. “Is there an output I can use?” He asked sternly in a thick German accent. We all simultaneously pointed to the only outlet near the couch. The one I was using. He made his way towards it and I quickly unplugged my computer, frantically searching for another spot.
            We fear what we don’t understand. When this man first walked in he was layered in thick, dark clothing, aside from his bright orange beanie. He was three times any of our size and could have easily smashed our skulls with a flick of a finger. He was soaked from the rain, giving him an added element of mystery, like a heathen who had appeared from the slums. When he entered there were no friendly gestures, he didn’t e even introduce himself. He seemed to only care about one thing, getting shelter and privacy as soon as possible. What he plotted next was unknown to us. But his appearance in his thermals exhibited an innocence that we failed to see. He became more human and less threatening. We started to empathize with him. Although, we were still on the defense and still scared shitless. He sat next to me and fixated himself on his computer. Everyone was watching him. He started mumbling to himself and finally turned to me. “How do you get the internet?” This question put me at ease because I knew the answer. I gave him the password and guided him to a secure connection. This connection proved to be much more than a digital one. He turned to me again, “What’s your name?”
“Tony,” I replied timidly. He extended his long arm for a handshake. I gave him my hand expecting him to crush it, but he offered a surprisingly gentle grip.
“I’m Elijah,” he exclaimed. After this introduction, the tension in the room ceased. Everyone reverted back to their previous devotions. The giant had a name, he was human after all. We were all still curious to what he was doing in Malaga, a small southern town on the peninsula of Spain, but no one dared to ask. We all had our own particular reasons, and we knew that this man spoke at his own will.
            How the topic presented itself was a bit peculiar. The man was struggling with a web cam connection. For seeming like such a nomadic warrior, he was very technologically reliant. He finally figured it out and I noticed a woman on the screen. What she was saying I couldn’t understand since they were speaking in German. After a brief conversation he signed off and grunted, taking his earphones off. I could tell something was bothering him. He turned to me and spoke, “I can’t reach my mother. That was my girlfriend, we can use the webcam, but my mother doesn’t have a webcam.” He seemed crushed and attempted to console himself. “My girlfriend will visit her. It will be ok.” It became evident that this man was on a journey, and he was far away from his homeland.

            People repent in different ways. Some people don’t at all and live with guilt whether it’s from their direct actions or those from generations passed on. Repenting is necessary to make peace within one’s self, and in conclusion, with the world. I could feel an unusual sorrow coming from this man, paired with an inspiring and commending act of selflessness. Without any questions from anybody he looked up and began to tell us his story. Like children in our beds with the covers tucked to our chins, we awaited his tale, and what we were told none of us would have ever guessed.
            “I have walked here from Germany.” Our eyes squinted in disbelief.
            “You walked here?” Someone pried.
            “Yes, it’s been three years I have been walking. I will walk until 2013, over 25,000 km.” We were silent again. This was something far more admirable than we’d ever conclude, something inconceivable to any of us, but we knew he was honest. Our guilt started to overwhelm us for such hard judgements.
            “Why?” I asked. He turned to me and smiled. It was warm and proud.
            “I’m walking to all the temples and palaces of all religions to pay my respects. I started at the Berlin wall and my final destination is Jerusalem. I’m repenting for the past mistakes of my country, of my people.” He handed me a piece of paper that included all the information about his journey. In bold black letters it read, ‘I walk for peace and reconciliation, dignity and justice for all people and our life in harmony with our Nature, God’s creation. Shalom- Salam Aleikum.’ It hit me that the man I was sitting next to wasn’t at all a giant, a madman, or a heathen. He was a Saint, a prophet of the land that has been tortured by people for many generations.
“When I was a teenager, I was very mixed up. I was drinking heavily and had no direction in life. I had a decent job and went to school on a sports scholarship, but I was very unhappy. I had this longing in me ever since I was a boy at fourteen. My school wall was the Berlin wall. In 1989, when the peaceful revolution occurred, it affected me consciously and subconsciously. I always felt a deep sadness for what our country had done, for the holocaust, and the phrase ‘Never Again’ became words that I would live by. That candle filled ceremony changed my life and gave me hope, but the pain in my soul still existed.” All of us became students under this man’s hypnotic and emotional words. Our eyes were fixated upon him. Occasionally I’d hang my head low, trapped in reflection of my own life and purpose.
            “It wasn’t until I visited Ausschwitz where a Jewish woman and a former Nazi soldier embraced each other and drank out of the same cup. This is when I felt the reconciliation in me, and that’s when I started walking. With every step I lost my pain. Every tear freed me even more. When I was young I had problems, much like everyone does. I’d worry about making money, about providing for myself and family. I had unnecessary stress. Now I have nothing. I have no money. I take only donations and survive off the generosity of others. While I have no material possessions or financial security, I am the most happy and most free. I don’t have many worries aside from shelter, and even so, there is always a temple or church that will usually provide this for me. I rely on the way of nature and world to provide a safe path to my destinations. I have walked through the mountains, through the blistering heat and blizzards and hail storms and have survived. True peace requires fundamental conscious change, and then doing it.”
            This man, this saint, this prophet had forced everyone into deep self reflection. What he was doing, and had already accomplished was amazing. We had just one question.
            “So, what are you doing in Southern Spain?”
            “I went to Granada. It is a place of great resentment from the Jews towards the Christians. They were exiled in a bloody war comparable to the holocaust of World War II. I pray for their people. This walk isn’t just about me, but for all people who have suffered in the name of religion. Tomorrow I will take a boat to Rome and then make my way to Jerusalem.” We gave him praise, and of course the man was very humble. He muttered a simple, ‘thank you,’ and continued on writing. “I’m writing for a local paper in my hometown. My girlfriend edits and submits it for me. She was on the journey for a short while but had to go back home. The hardest part is being away from my family. But true love is forgiving.” The man paused and looked over at me.
“What are you doing here?” I supposed he singled me out because I was the only American. I wanted to give him some sort of enlightening answer, but I couldn’t muster anything slightly comparable to the epic tale he just told. So I just gave him the truth.
“I’m backpacking around Europe by myself for three months. It’s been a couple of weeks so far.”
“And you are doing this why?”
“For fun, and for something completely different. I’m doing this for the challenge of surviving alone in a different world and reality that I’m used to. I live to survive, and sometimes I need to remind myself how to survive. I’m doing this because when I become comfortable I become stagnant, unhappy, and bored. I’m always shocked how some people live their whole lives in one place. They’re too scared to venture out and see the world for what it is, its beauty and its ugliness. I’m doing this to educate myself and gain inspiration. If I can survive this trip, then I can do anything.” The man smiled. 
“It is a good thing what you are doing. Just remember, it’s not always about us.” His words changed my life and my trip. The exertion wasn’t just about partying and having fun and getting drunk with foreigners anymore, it was about relaying messages and understanding the world; about appreciating the real significant and meaningful people that enter your life, and cherishing every moment of peace. 

Elijah and I at the Picasso's Corner Hostel in Malaga, Spain. 
"The candle is a sign of peace and understanding as well as a sign of overcoming walls...for what our hearts seeks and hopes is deeply impregnated in us by the symbol of the candle- a symbol of universal language."