Archive for the 'Budget' Category



I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…

Elephant Seals, Artichoke Bread and a Lighthouse: Cheap Kicks on the California Coast

The wind had something to say. Howling, moaning, rattling through the fog-swelled rafters, it talked to us all night. The next morning, it fingered our hair, pinkened our noses, and carried the cries of birth and battles, sea gulls and elephant seals…

I think I’ll start the article something like that, depending on how highfalutin I wanna get. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds; the drama of the California coast during a winter storm evokes that kind of mulling, moody language. The main character, if you will, of my mini-trip down the San Francisco peninsula was the wind, urgent and unrelenting. But the supporting cast was pretty rad too.

I’m trying not to get too claustrophobic in my own life, and trying to keep the travel writing material a’coming. So despite a heavy-duty week-long storm, my friend Liz and I hopped into my beat-up little car and headed out for a little Northern California overnighting action in Pescadero.

Aside from being super accessible from the inner Bay Area, a trip down to Pescadero is also one of cheapest getaways around. We hiked around redwoods, espied an elephant seal colony, ate “world famous” artichoke bread and local goat milk cheese, and lazed in a cliffside hot tub—all for under $90 each.

Pescadero is an old-school fishing town down the peninsula between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Aside from some seriously killer breads from Arcangeli Grocery, its main claims to fame are its surroundings: the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, and Ano Nuevo State Park. Pigeon Point is a pretty basic hostel—except for its dramatic perch literally on the edge of the continent, its historic lighthouse, and its cliffside hot tub (yes, really). Ano Nuevo is a sandy stretch of shoreline best known as the winter home of migrating elephant seals, where they birth and wean and fuss and fight.

"Look, nature!"

The drive from Oakland was about an hour long, Highway 92 delving us down the spine of the peninsula into Half Moon Bay, a quintessentially quirky Northern California beach town. Then we headed down the 1, California’s most famously beautiful highway. It winds you past pastoral fields, green hills, a sprinkling of cove beaches and family farms, and a crashing, crumbling coastline. Everything was grey and heavy and wet. It was perfect Lucero-listening weather.

Huddled on a cliff next to an run-down, chained-off old lighthouse, Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel smells like salt, and the ocean winds rattle the humble buildings endlessly. The hostel is divided into three houses, each with its own kitchen and common room. There was only one other couple in the house, fellow overnighters from the East Bay. It was $25 for a dorm bunk; we had a whole room to ourselves.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The main draw of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel isn’t the ocean views or its precipitous perch; it’s the hot tub. I don’t know how a youth hostel came to have a feature like a hot tub, but it’s about the raddest thing you can imagine. A trip to the hot tub cost $7 per person; you sign up for a half-hour slot when you check-in.

We stumbled in the dark to the hot tub, shuffling in our sneakers and shivering in our towels. We kicked it in the hot tub, listening to the sound of wind and waves. It was a dark, cloudy night; there were no stars, just the white froth of water on rocks, and the lonesome beam of the lighthouse.

The next morning, we drove 10 minutes down to Ano Nuevo. Celebrities may have Miami; elephant seals winter in Ano Nuevo. They arrive from Alaska in mid-December; moms birth pups, wean them, and they hang around confused and blubberous until about late March. Mid-January is the best time to check out the seals; on our tour, we saw a birth, a fight, plenty of sulking and lots of squealing.

Hella seals

The seal tour is pretty popular, especially as a field trip for Bay Area schools. You have to take a guided tour, and it’s best to book ahead, but here’s the good news: the tour is an hour and a half long, and only $7. (Parking in the lot, though, costs a $10; there’s not any other viable parking around.)

Our naturalist docent guide was a cool old dude that solidified my opinion that being a park volunteer after you retire is about the most bad-ass thing you can do with your time. Our group of 13 people, mostly all Californians on day trips, headed out into the sand dunes, a mile traipse from the parking lot.

First we passed “Losers’ Alley,” where male seals that have lost the fight for prestige pout and sulk in solitude for the remainder of the season. We got pretty close to one; he arched his back up, his nose/trunk hanging like an absurd, uncircumcised phallus. A guttural, grunting nose erupted, bursting out of his mouth in a gust of white breath; it sounded like a stopped-up toilet. It was his get-the-hell-back cry, and we obliged.

We climbed up a dune that overlooked the colony, and spent about an hour watching them flop around in the sand, squealing and moaning and rumbling their enormous selves around. The pups were adorable, too fat to do much of anything but wiggle their fins around and cry for milk. The moms flipped sand over their backs, rolled over to let pups nurse, and grumbled. The men did what men do: fight.

Bashing chests...

We caught a pretty good fight, full of plenty of screaming, biting and butting. It broke out amid the crowd, dominoed its way through the colony, pups wiggling to get out of the way; it rumbled all the way down to the shore, where the loser got 86ed. “It’s just like a bar fight,” Liz surmised.

Going mad for the placenta

We also got to see a birth. Well, not really. It was too far away to see, but we were alerted by the swooping, squawking riot of sea gulls. Sea gulls, apparently, love to eat placenta, so you can always tell when a birth is going down when the gulls start going crazy, a frenzy of white wings and diving beaks.

Muddy and wind-tossed, we tramped back to the car, cranked up the heat, and headed home. It was invigorating to get out of town, even if it was just for a night. Aside from gathering info for an article (not yet sold, if there’s any takers out there), I needed to clear my mind. It’s so easy to get tunnel-vision, to get caught up in the everydayness of my own life. It’s a good life, but there should be more to it than errands and work and my computer. I really am happiest when I’m traveling, and my mini-trip confirmed that. And reminded me how much killer stuff there is within an hour of where I live. And that it doesn’t need to cost any more than a new pair of pants.

Livin on a CUC: Independent, Budget Travel in Cuba

Cheesin it up

Backpackers, lefties and dirty hippies beware: Cuba is not cheap. And despite any romantic revolutionary visions, it’s got tourist traps, just like everywhere else. They’re just filled with Che shirts instead of fanny packs.

Several factors might lead one to logically assume Cuba to be a budget-friendly, independent travelers’ paradise: it’s a dirt-poor Latin American country, enamored in the hearts of liberals, intellectuals and military-cap-wearing undergrads. So when you hear that your low-to-mid-range daily budget for Cuba should be around $100/day, it comes as a bit of a shock.

Here’s the deal: after the sugar industry collapsed in Cuba, there wasn’t much left to keep the island afloat. Keen eyes turned towards tourism. Not only does Cuba’s larger-than-life lore hold particular allure for the left-leaning, it’s got an undeniable romanticism—old cars, crumbling buildings, rum and Rumba. Couple that white people’s insatiable lust for balmy Caribbean getaways, and they had the perfect cocktail on their hands—muddled with Euros instead of mint sprigs. Tourism today is “the most dynamic sector of the Cuban economy.”

If you’ve traveled to other places where tourism is a mainstay of the economy, you’ll know what this means: high prices and potential hassle. From Moroccan medina touts to San Francisco’s 14% hotel tax, economies that rely on tourism milk it. In San Francisco, the hotel tax goes to fund all sorts of cool arts endeavors and social programming that other US cities don’t have; you could argue (depending on your politics) that Cuba’s dual currencies are an extension of that. And in Cuba you don’t really have to worry about hustlers and pick-pockets (though they do still exist); tour companies take care of that.

Let's play "Spot the Tourists"

You wouldn’t initially think it, but Cuba’s got a resort, package tourism industry up to snuff with any Caribbean destination. A Hungarian friend won a Cuban vacation as an incentive prize at work; all he saw of Cuba outside of his resort was through a tour bus window. Combine the package factor with the absence of youth hostels and backpacking networks, and the prospects can seem pretty dismal for DIY cheapstakes like me.

But independent, budget travel in Cuba can and does happen. There’s just some special tricks you have to be hip to. My travel companion and I managed to squeak by on $75/day, well under the Lonely Planet budget (but then again, we were both surviving at home on less than $2000/month, so cheap living wasn’t anything new). Here’s what we learned and how we did it.

Resources

My two biggest resources for independent, budget travel to Cuba were Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum, and Cuba Junky, a comprehensive, Cuban/Dutch-run website for travelers (with endearingly odd translations and misspellings). At these two sites, you can find info all sorts of great information, and on the forum you can trouble-shoot and get advice (and suffer through the occasional political debate).

Money

Cuba operates on two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP), the money of the people, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the money of tourists.

Why? As tourism grew, American dollars began to wiggle their way into the country—hotels and tourist restaurants charged foreigners in dollars, while charging locals in pesos. (Considering the average monthly salary for a Cuban doctor is about what I make in thirty minutes, it’s more fair than it seems.) In addition, “dollar-only” shops emerged, where scarce and coveted items like dental floss could be had for a a high price. The influx of money was good, but the presence of American dollars was kind of slap-in-the-face to the government, wouldn’t you say? The government thus created the CUC to keep US dollars out; they did, though, base the exchange rate on the US dollar. Tourists pay for things in CUCs, while locals pay in pesos.

Whenever you exchange money, you’ll be given CUCs, and the majority of places you spend money will accept only CUCs. Invariably, however, you’ll get your hands on some pesos. It’ll probably happen like this: you get seduced by the wafting smell of cooking meats, and buy some street food. You hand the guy your CUC note. He digs around his pockets, shouts over at some other vendors; no one has the proper CUC change. He shrugs and gives your change in pesos. You’ve now got a pocket full of notes and coins, and can pay for small items like coffee and ice-cream with pesos—dropping the price from a couple bucks to a couple cents (literally).

There are of course more nefarious ways to get your hands on pesos, but you wouldn’t do that, now would you? Tourists aren’t really supposed to use pesos, and I have to say, I felt pretty guilty paying the equivalent of 5 cents to someone who makes $10/month—even if I am just a waitress living in a run-down North Oakland Victorian. I don’t recommend trying to use pesos as a way of cutting corners and stretching your budget, but it’s something that will happen at some point.

Casa Particulares

The single biggest way to save money in Cuba is by staying in casa particulares. State-licensed rooms for rent in private homes, casa particulares will also be one of your best glimpses into Cuban life.

Huge-ass main course served at a casa particular

Here’s how it works: individuals apply for a license, which is expensive; they must pay a monthly tax whether or not they have guests. The government approves them, and they can rent rooms to foreigners.

Expect to pay 15-30 CUCs per night (as opposed to 50-100 Euros and upwards on a hotel). Plus, as everyone knows, homestays are a great way to experience the everyday life and culture of a country; we stayed with hosts in Vinales whose teenage son showed us plenty of hip Cuban dance moves (which we were incapable of replicating). Hosts will usually offer to cook you meals, for an additional 5-15 CUCs. This may not be cheaper than eating at a budget restaurant or food stall, but they’ll stuff you silly.

The Cuba Junky site has gotten much more spiffy since I went to Cuba, and you can now book a casa particular room via the website. I did it a semi-old-fashioned way: I got ahold of Potato’s email address on the Thorn Tree forum, sent him an email, and he booked a room for us. He gave us his address; once we landed in Havana, we went to his apartment, enjoyed a cup of tea and chatted (he’s a really cool dude), and he walked us a couple blocks over to a lovely elderly couple who we stayed with for four days (and whose toilet we later busted—more on that later).

I like to have my accommodation arranged for my first couple nights when I arrive somewhere new, but the rest of the casa particulares we stayed in on our trip we booked ourselves. Most people will display their license logo prominently, so you can just knock on their door and ask if they have room (really, Cubans are insanely friendly and won’t turn you away). If the one you go to is full, they’ll for sure have a dozen friends with licensed rooms, and will help you find one. It sounds like a hassle, more for them than us, but I swear it works: a cab driver drove us all around Vinales while neighbors tracked down an empty room.

Bring Every Last Toiletry You May Possibly Need

Basic medical supplies are both costly and in short supply, or nonexistent, in Cuba. Pack all the sunscreen, aspirin, contact lens solution and insect repellent you might need—or risk shelling out painful amounts of money in a poorly stocked dollar-store. Even an extra roll of toilet paper isn’t a bad idea—unless you like wiping your ass with day-old news.

Tours and Entertainment

Cuba has a fairly well-beaten path, and if you stick to the neighborhoods and activities tourists are routinely funneled into, you’ll bleed CUCs faster than you can say “revolucion.” But get a little intrepid and a little chatty, and you’ll stretch your budget big-time.

Everyone knows that Cubans party, and party well, so you can be pretty sure that any club charging a hefty entrance fee is geared towards tourists. And as cool as a Hemingway tour or trip to the Tropicana might sound right now, you’ll quickly realize that they’re the Fisherman’s Wharf of Havana. Get friendly and ask your casa hosts (or random folks on the street) for tips on where to go and what to do. Less tacky companies like San Cristobal Agencia de Viajes are a good bet for more offbeat tours.

Food, Transport, and the Likes

There’s no real trick here: just do what you do in other countries.

Dinners at tourist-geared restaurants will set you back much further than paladares (mom-and-pops) and street food stands. Snack foods can actually be pretty hard to come by, so bringing along some biscuits, nuts or, for the homesick Yankee, peanut butter isn’t a bad idea. You can skimp on transit, but be prepared to pay the price: low-cost buses break down and hitch-hiking isn’t fun anywhere (in my opinion). Walk and take local buses within big cities, as opposed to cabs, and of course, the less you move, the less you spend on bus tickets, trains, etc. Cut down on souvenirs (really, how any Che hats do you need?), and do free stuff like strolling and lazing on the beach.


So, as with the last post, any seasoned Cuban travelers or recent returnees wanna share their experiences? We’re all ears…

Yankee in a Che Shirt: How To Travel to Cuba Independently and Illegally as an American

Americans you're likely to encounter in Cuba

Si, se puede!

Three years ago, I traveled to Cuba. I didn’t get a visa, didn’t book a tour, didn’t go with a dance troupe or salsa band (though that would have been killer). I did it the way I do everything, independently.

Fear mongers, nay sayers and foreign travel agencies would lead you to believe that independent travel to Cuba is dangerous and impossible. They’re the same people that make full and complete stops at every stop sign, and are too scared to ride the subway in NYC. Or else they’re trying to sell you something—the hustling taxi driver outside of the airport. They clamor cowardly behind the embargo.

Here’s the legality deal: as an American, you’re technically not banned from traveling to Cuba; you’re prohibited from spending money there. Whatever. If you didn’t obey your parents’ curfew as a teenager, are you really gonna start heeding authority now?

The fun thing about traveling to Cuba as an American is that it requires more effort, more digging. You can’t buy your plane tickets online; most worthwhile advice won’t come from guidebooks but fellow travelers, via forums like Thorn Tree. Basically, you have to work a little harder. But the reward is getting to go to one of the most un-Americanized countries in the world—remarkably only 90 miles from Florida.

I’m pretty sure it’s technically illegal to give Cuban travel advice to Americans. But eff that too. Here’s how I did it, how it worked and the gems of wisdom I smuggled back (along with the cigars):

Before You Go: Money and Packing

Your most important pre-travel preparation as an American is money. Your ATM and credit cards won’t work in Cuba, meaning you’ve pretty much got to bring everything you plan on spending with you. Travelers checks are a pain in the ass and have a hefty commission tacked on—which means you’ll be bringing cash. Lots and lots of cash.

If you’re like me, you’re not too thrilled at the idea of walking around with $1300 on your person. But keep in mind Cuba’s remarkably low crime rate, the absence of desperate drug addicts and your own street sense—you’re gonna be fine.

Another consideration is which type of currency to bring in. The greenback gets an extra 10% penalty fee on top of the standard 8% exchange commission, so most travelers opt to bring in Canadian dollars or Euros. It pays to do the math on conversions and figure out how much you’ll be hit by commissions and fees for dual exchange (changing from dollars into Euros into CUCs).

Another pre-trip consideration is what to bring, and what not to bring. This is for everyone, not just Americans. Charitable donations like medical supplies and clothes are greatly needed and appreciated, but check out regulations on what and how much to bring. Cuban Customs has some unusual regulations regarding the import of electronics and pornography, and is super strict about narcotics. Of particular concern to Americans is the prohibition of anti-revolutionary literature—make sure you don’t have any crazy right-wing, Miami ex-pat ramblings with you. Not that you would anyway.

Getting In: Booking a Flight

The easiest, most popular and often cheapest way for an American to get into Cuba is through Mexico, namely Cancun. Of course, Cancun is the #1 most suspicious transfer point, and word around the chat rooms is that you’re singled out by US Customs most often when arriving from Cancun. But it’s also an insanely popular destination, and I think the Mexican- to Cuban-vacationer ratio still works in your favor.

American travel agencies and airlines are prohibited from booking flights or giving any kind of assistance to Cuban travelers. But foreign airlines and agencies aren’t. So instead of shelling out big bucks to some Canadian company that’ll orchestrate the whole thing (for a mere 300% mark-up), do what I did: call a foreign airline at one of their international offices. I called Mexicana in Mexico City (52 55 2881 0000), requested to speak to an agent that spoke English (not a bad idea when purchasing something as expensive as plane tickets), and bought tickets from Mexico to Havana. Not as easy as Orbitz, but pretty damn close.

The way the flight times worked out, we ended up bookending our Cuban travels with overnight stays in Mexico. I thought I’d be smart and fly through Merida, whose Sunday night dance parties sounded infinitely preferable to Cancun’s binge-drinking co-eds. Turns out that you can’t fly directly from Merida to Havana, so we had to transfer in Cancun anyway. Ah well, better than a spending a night in Cancun.

Arriving: Surviving Customs

Passing through Cuban Customs is the most intimidating border crossing I’ve ever done. But, as I reminded my then-boyfriend and travel companion, Cuba wants to let you in. They need tourists’ money. They just wanna make sure you’re not there on an anti-revolution espionage mission. Fair enough.

Expect to stand in an impossibly long line. You’ll be instructed to approach the Customs booth by yourself. They’ll scowl at you, tell you to take off your glasses and look into the camera. They’ll photograph you, record you, enter every last bit of info on your passport into their computer. They’ll then stamp your tourist card, your golden ticket. Cuba doesn’t stamp passports, but $20 purchased tourist cards. Mexicana provided mine, but it’s a good idea to check your airline or prepurchase your card at a Cuban Embassy, as getting ahold of one at the airport sucks. And hang on to that baby—losing it is an expensive, bureaucratic hassle.

Once your passport is handed back to you, you’ll get directed through the floor-to-ceiling solid door that the travelers before you disappeared behind. It may seem like you’re being funneled into an interrogation room, but most likely, you’ll be headed off for a quick frisking and x-raying of your baggage. Drug sniffing dogs will accompany female agents in ridiculously short skin-tight mini-skirts—the most amusing part of your Customs experience.

While You’re There

Really? Couldn't have left the Confederate swim trunks at home?

Once you’re in Cuba, there’s not a lot in your day-to-day travels that’ll set you apart as American. You’ll have to deal with the money issue, but the good news is that everyone will guess you’re from somewhere other than the US. It’s a nice change of pace from the Frenchman breaking into sudden English with, “And where in the States are you from?”

Getting Out: Playing Dumb and Looking Innocent

The trickiest and most anxiety-inducing part of any American’s trip to Cuba is coming home. I’ve heard of Americans getting hassled by Cuban customs agents, but it’s pretty rare. The folks you have to worry about are the good ole’ boys (and girls) back home.

But first you have to worry about a double-entry stamp back in Mexico. This means that you’ll have a stamp for arriving in Mexico, no stamps for Cuba, but then another entry stamp for your return to Mexico; there’s a void in there, signaling nefarious activity.

You can handle this one of two ways: bribing the Mexican Customs agent to not stamp your passport (trickier at Cancun, where they’re more vigilant, but still possible), or by hoping for the best with a doubly stamped passport. We opted to bribe the Mexican Customs agent. We tucked a sizable peso note into our passports and softly asked not to be stamped. The agent grunted and handed us back our passports, unstamped. If you’ve got a heavily stamped passport to begin with, it might be worth saving the money and relying on the slim odds that the US Customs agent will bother to inspect your passport closely. I’ve never had an agent more than glance at my stamps.

Aside from the extensive, albeit poorly edited, advice by eco-hippies International Bike Fund (I mean that in a good way), any American who’s ever traveled to Cuba will be eager to give you plenty of tips and first-hand accounts on how to elude US Customs—whether you want to hear it or not. So here’s my two centavos:

Revolution anniversary poster I stole and smuggled back home

Reports vary, but up to 100,000 Americans are claimed to have visited Cuba last year. Most of them breeze through US Customs without a problem. There’s nothing that should single you out as particularly suspicious. Be respectful; don’t roll up to the counter smoking a cigar and wearing a Che hat. But don’t sweat it too much. Customs agents are doing their job, and you’re doing yours. They really don’t want to write out lengthy reports anyway. I truly regarded my traveling to Cuba as not too dissimilar from jay-walking—not supposed to really do it, but no big deal. Folks’ll tell you not to bring anything incriminating and obviously Cuban back with you, but eff that—I brought cigars and stolen street posters.

We arrived at SFO disheveled and tired with a horde of sunburnt vacationers. I of course did not write on my Immigration Card that I’d traveled to Cuba, nor did I list the goods I was smuggling back (why you gonna rat yourself out?). I smiled nicely at the agent, told her yes, I’d had a great time in Mexico, picked up my bags, passed em through the x-ray machine without incident, and headed home.

But enough out of me. Any Americans out there wanna share their Cuban travel experiences?

We Wish You a Merry Solstice, and a Non-Denominational New Year: A Muir Woods Solstice

Into the darkness...

Nature lover, pagan, hippie, cheapskate—call me what you will, but the Muir Woods Solstice Event ruled. And not just in a Wicker Man kind of way.

The free, annual event honoring the longest night of the year is uber North-Bay: wholesome, granola-y, non-denominational family fun, set amid old-growth redwoods and adorned with weedy handmade garlands. Luminaria-lit paths fill with white-breathed revelers, whose flashlights make the falling rain look like snow, or that scene from Edward Scissorheads. Puppet shows, antler-clashing Germanic dances and de-Christianized caroling ensue in an event that makes even a cynical 20-something (me) smile.

The promise of free entry and free hot cider lured me out on a moody Monday afternoon, to brave the bridges and highways of a Bay Area rush hour. On a slow Saturday, I’d gotten to chatting with some regulars at work, who gushed to me about the event. Traipsing around the damp dark of one of the Bay Area’s most impressive natural attractions had sounded like a damn good way to spend the longest night of the year. I grabbed a crappy flashlight and a hooded puff coat, roped a friend into riding shotgun and playing DJ, and we set out, sliding along the green curves of Marin, through afternoon sun that shone through the clouds like light into a church.

A ranger with plastic encasing her hat ushered us past the forever-full parking lot; we joined the assembly of cars lined up along the soft shoulder. We walked a muddy, pleasant 15 minutes to the park entrance. Slicker-clod kids tromped puddles as their parents juggled umbrellas and thermoses.

We arrived just as the crowd was thickening. A bearded ranger that looked like a nervous cross between a bluegrass singer and a surfer handed us a booklet of Solsticized/Muirized Christmas carols, complete with lines and titles such as “Deck the woods with luminaria,” “I’m Dreaming of a Green Solstice,” “O Redwood Tree,” and “Come All Ye People.” My personal favorite was “On the first day of Solstice / A Ranger showed to me / A spotted owl in a redwood tree.” The adapted songs captured the progressive eco-politics and non-religious spirituality of Marin better than an Anne Lamott novel. You know that stir a couple years back when right-wing Christians got their knickers in a twist over “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas”? Well, these were the folks they were pissed at.

It was, as you might guess, a mellow crowd of nature-y families and local weirdos (a simplification that I suppose puts me into the latter category). We grabbed some cups of cider and strolled around in the intermittent rain, soggy sneakers and cold noses. The creek was full from the recent storm, the stumps mossy; everything felt wet and alive.

We joined the huddle of firepits and hunched shoulders encircling a small, makeshift stage. It was time for some wholesome, non-offensive entertainment. The crowd sang a couple carols, and was then held rapt by a story-telling performance featuring exuberantly portrayed animal characters that I’m sure have inspired several voice-over school rejections. We agreed that the confused shadow puppet show was most definitely the improved result of a flash of marijuana-fueled brilliance. We took it as our cue to stroll the now-dark trails.

Candles in white paper bags lined the trails, making it feel almost like we were walking through an altar. Raindrops held heavy on the tree branches as little kids ran past in a bobble of flashlight beams. Other than that, it was all sound. It reminded me of an interview I’d read with a travel writer (Don George?) who’d wanted to write about something other than the cathedral-ish quality of light in Muir Woods. He’d blindfolded himself and walked around, experiencing the famous woods with mostly just his sense of sound, and written the article from that perspective. It was true that it was a totally different Muir Woods without the light and the sight of redwoods—all rambling water and the solid, rooted presence of those trees, the way you feel a stranger in a dark room.

We got back to the caroling crowd just in time to catch the most bad-ass and spooky performance of the night, a Germanic Solstice dance by the Christmas Rebels (which sounds kind of punk rock). Composed of members of the German fraternal society California Rebels, the group did a slow, hypnotic folk dance that included antler-clashing and creepy flute playing. A bearded dude with a crazy eye hushedly explained the pre-Christian roots of the dance, which got back to the potent mix of fear and worship that fuels most religions, not just Paganism. Under the illuminated, snow-like mist, the clanks of the antlers and the wet clomp of the determined feet felt like a ritual not from long ago, but rather some deranged allegorical movie. Which is to say it was rad.

Toes numb and bellies hungry, we trekked back to the car under the dim halo of my flashlight. A half-grin of moon cut through the heavy clouds, and the earth rustled, sighed, pulled a blanket of darkness up to its chin and settled in for the longest sleep of the year. And Marin celebrated, the way Marin knows how: amid the trees.

Flyin’ with Ryan: What to Expect and How to Survive

DSCN3843I have seen the future of air travel. And it’s covered in Telecom ads.

If you haven’t been broke and in Europe in recent years, you may not be familiar with Ryanair. Among the no-frills airlines specializing in short distances and absurdly low prices, Ryanair is the most vile, audacious and offensive. And usually the cheapest.

The idea of an under-$50 flight gets most Americans all hot and bothered. It’s just another way those Europeans have it better than us—universal health care, social welfare systems that work, less violent crime, tougher environmental laws. And cheap flights. I’m talking 5 Euros cheap. I’m not sure why Europe gets to add this to their ever-expanding repertoire of ass-kicking, but my guess would be that the airlines have to compete with competent, efficient train service. Take Amtrak, or God forbid, Greyhound across the country? Down to LA? I think I’ll pay the $125.

When I was figuring out the general itinerary for my last trip, I checked out flight costs for my longest distances on FlyCheapo. I came across Ryanair, and thought there was something wrong. A one-hour flight from Marrakesh to Seville for 5 Euros? Porto to Madrid also for 5? Are you kidding me?

Well, yes and no. The thing with Ryanair is that there’s catches. Enough to warrant a mitt—or the ability to read fine print, follow rules to a tee, and tune out advertising assaults. And you’ll need a pinch of luck. I took 2 flights with Ryanair; here’s some survival tips on what to expect from Europe’s most infamous airline:

The first trick to surviving a Ryanair flight is to read every rule and instruction, and treat it like the gospel. It is. Any attempts to bend the rules promptly results in a hailstorm of fees. Size and weight requirements for both checked and carry-on luggage, for instance, aren’t approximations. Carry-on baggage over 10kg? That’ll be 20 Euros. Forget to print your boarding pass at home? That’ll be 40 Euros. Traveling with an infant, surf board or guitar? Another 20-40 Euros. You’ve gotta pay to check a bag, but if it exceeds 15 kg, there’s an additional per kilo charge. If you’re a non-EU citizen, you have to have your passport checked by immigration control; forget that, and, yes, it’s another 20 Euros.

In preparation for your Ryanair flight, don’t even think about fudging on the details. Check-in closes exactly 40 minutes before the flight departs; arrive even 3 minutes late and you’re SOL. Have your printed boarding pass in hand, and get your passport checked.

Get to the gate early. Don’t sit in the hard plastic chairs—stand as close to the gate as possible. Ryanair doesn’t assign seating, which at first seems counterintuitive—it takes longer for people to board when they’re elbowing and jostling and trying to find their own seats. But, as always, there’s a catch: you can pay 4 Euros for priority boarding. Most of the folks doing this are traveling with small children, or those infants they paid an extra 20 Euros to hold on their laps.

As boarding time approaches, expect to see a steely-faced attendant walking up and down the line of anxious passengers, examining each carry-on item. It must be under 10 kg, and it must be only one bag. That means purses, laptops, water bottles, plastic bags carrying your wilted sandwich from earlier that day—it all counts. This is where they really rake in the extra fees. I only saw one man successfully evade the attendant, putting a jacket on over his fanny pack and untucking his shirt so you couldn’t see the waist strap. Smooth.

When it comes time to board, don’t expect anything fancy like gates or protected corridors. You’ll be scurrying across the tarmac and scampering up stairs (front or back, they open both up for maximized efficiency). Hustle on to the plane while perky young attendants bark at you like PE teachers: keep moving! find a seat! don’t block the isle! move quickly! go!

You’ll discover a couple of unusual things about your Ryanair aircraft. One, there are no tray tables. That safety card with a creepy characters acting out worst-case scenarios will not be a folded card in a pocket, but pasted onto the seat back in front of you. The overhead bins will be covered in Telecom ads, like a bus or metro car.

Once you’ve buckled your seatbelt, you’ve successfully completed the first stage in surviving a Ryanair flight: you’ve negotiated the rules and fees. Now it’s time to sit back and… be marketed at.

It’s ingenious, really, and I’m not sure why other airlines haven’t thought of it yet. Maybe they have, and Ryanair’s just the only one ballsy enough to go through with it. They’ve got a captive audience on an airplane, and Ryanair makes use of this ideal situation. In a 55 minute flight, I counted 4 opportunities to buy things. Jonesing for a cigarette? Buy our Smokeless Cigarettes for only 6 Euros. Make use of Ryanair’s exclusive inflight mobile phone service, and text and chat your heart away for only 2 Euros a minute. Buy Nescafe coffee for only 3 Euros. Get your gambling fix by buying a scratch card for only 3 Euros—and don’t feel guilty because some undisclosed amount of the proceeds goes to charity (here the flight attendant actually walked the aisle saying, “Win 10,000 Euros, save the children”). And let’s not forget duty-free shopping.

All this means that the attendants are basically talking at you the entire flight. Part of the reason is that announcements and sales pitches need to be made in multiple languages, but still. I recommend headphones. A smiley “no thank you” is as effective as a mean scowl, so pick whichever one fits your mood. No charge.

Now, when you’re descending into your destination, you may think the battle’s almost over, but here’s where the luck comes into play. I was fortunate on my 2 flights, because I landed in the airports and cities I thought I’d be landing in. Not so for all Ryanair passengers. I’ve heard horror stories about people landing on some lonesome runway 20 kms from the city they’d booked for. Notice that on your Ryanair itinerary, specific airport names aren’t given, just the names of cities. This allows them to land in the regional area of whatever destination, but not necessarily the main (and more expensive) airport. So, if you’re among the unfortunate, how do you get to where you thought you were going? Ryanair is nice enough to arrange for a bus. Which you can ride for 20 Euros.

Seeing as though I landed where I was supposed to, only had one flight time changed and neurotically followed every rule, my Ryanair travel experience wasn’t so bad. I actually don’t mind being inundated with ads and paying checked bag fees if it means I’m flying for a total of 25 Euros. And judging from the number of filled seats, I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Ryanair certainly hasn’t won any friends with its wily antics (this guy is pissed), and there’s an art to surviving their flights. But until they start charging to use the bathroom (they lost on that one), I’ll still grab a cheap flight with them whenever I’m in Europe. And my guess is that US-based airlines will begin moving more in this direction—hey, they’re already charging for checked bags. Only their flights ain’t no 5 Euros. (Oh, Europe, there you go again…)

Legzira Love

DSCN3456I think I may have just found the most beautiful beach in the world.

Yes, it’s a sweeping statement, and no, I’m not a beach afficionado. But if red cliffs diving into pebbled sand coves count for anything; if lazy waves crashing against sandstone arches score points; if a tourist to local fishman/swooping seagull/stray dog/donkey (hey, it’s still Morocco) ratio of 1:5 means much—if these are the elements that create that “paradise” thing all the guidebooks talk about, well then, I just spent the night there. And slept with the windows open to the ocean. Cause why not, you know?

Legzira Plage is pretty incognito—it warrants not more than a paragraph in my guidebook and a weathered-beaten, graffitied roadside sign along the pretty two-lane highway connecting Tiznit, Mirleft and Sidi Ifni. Down Morocco’s Atlantic coastline, just before the Western Sahara and a disputed border, the area as a whole doesn’t attract the hordes that the country’s other wonders do—which is why it attracted me. A near-deserted beach away from any big city or pushy tout? I’m in.

I took the local bus from Mirleft, got off at the faded cement block sign at the access road, and took the 20 minute walk down to the beach, a lazy slope washed in ocean breezes. The scenery revealed itself like a striptease: a sweeping hill view, a peak of ocean, the sound of waves, the pink edge of a pink building. I turned into a small dirt parking lot, and almost started laughing—it was so beautiful, it was almost obscene.

DSCN3464There were half-a-dozen pink buildings cascading down the cliff to the beach. Sweaty and shoulders aching, I set my backpack down in a cheap but cheerful hotel room with windows that flung open to the ocean. (Now thoroughly “off the beaten path,” the room costed only a little more than my smelly toilet- and shower-less hole in Essaouira.) I kicked off my shoes, grabbed my camera, and went for a walk.

I’m not much of a shutterbug, but I exhausted both my camera battery and memory card. I walked for over an hour; each cove was more secluded and empty than the last. On the first few beaches, I passed a small group of teenagers playing soccer, a fisherman, and a handful of sun-bathing tourists, many of them Moroccan (tell-tale sign: the lady’s swimming fully clothed). We “bonjour”ed politely. I rounded a gently jutting set of red rocks, and was alone. I closed my eyes, and let out a long exhale.

I’ve really been liking Morocco, but I can’t tell you how good it felt to be alone, away from any non-human sound—just me and the seagulls, you know? Later, I stripped down to my swim suit, and wave-hopped and sun-bathed without concern for modesty. I soaked up much-needed sun, vitamin D sparking wildly through my body. I didn’t worry about, well, anything.

I had a simple dinner of grilled fish (yes, caught that afternoon) and pommes frites, washed down by that killer mint tea. The hotel’s patio was sparsely populated with about a dozen dining guests. If there were any less people, I realized, it would have felt creepy. Like The Shining or something.

The hotel only ran electricity for prime hours during the evening, so I read by candlelight for awhile before crashing out. It was warm enough, so I left the windows open and slept to sound of the waves, to the smell of salt.

Donkey on the beach!

Donkey on the beach!

In the morning, the fog outside the window was thick. The tide was so far out that a previously offshore crag of rocks connected to the beach. I sipped my freshly squeezed orange juice and nibbled on my still-warm bread breakfast, and watched the fishmen trod out for the day, the sifters search out clams and mussels (I think) in the tide pools. A waiting donkey with two empty sacks on its side bickered with a yapping stray dog with a wobbly magazine of stretched-out nipples. The fog thinned, turned to a fine mist, and slowly, so faintly I could hardly notice, was gone.

I don’t know why Legzira Plage is so under-visited, under-promoted and unknown. But I’m not complaining. My camera battery may have konked out, but my personal battery is fully recharged. Just in time for Marrakech.

Vomit Ride Through the Heat-Land: Part II

Grand taxis outside the bus station

Grand taxis outside the bus station

We groaned our way along the highway, rocking and swaying with every dip in the road. The air-conditioning had completely given out; I was grateful to be sitting by one of the few curtains, blocking out the mid-day sun. I shifted around the cheap shawl I had covering my bare arms and realized I was sweating so badly the blue dye was wearing off on my sticky arms.

I devolved into lamaze breathing. Well, no, not really—but I did employ the breathing technique I learned in yoga class to release heat: exhaling with a “hah,” like you’re fogging up a mirror (or a steaming bus window). Burning it up in a power lunge or cramped to hell on a sweat-bomb bus, it really does help. It also took my focus of my increasing nausea, not at all abetted by the chorus of gagging and spitting surrounding me. Despite having passed all those littered landscapes, I felt immensely grateful for plastic bags.

Others around me weren’t so lucky. The poor boy left crouching in the stairwell—some kind soul had supplied him with some newspaper to sit on—had been puking more or less constantly the whole ride, now approaching 3 hours. He’d been provided with an arsenal of plastic bags, a supply he apparently exhausted. That’s right—I saw his desperate face, checks full and eyes searching, then heard the sound of splattering on the stairs. A chorus of shouts erupted; the tout appeared with a fist full of newspaper and women waved robed arms in an effort to fan away the smell. It didn’t help much—in the heat, the vomit pile festered, wafting odiferously through the bus carriage in rank waves.

Any minute now, I told myself, we’ll get to Agadir. It wasn’t my destination, only a little more than half-way along, but a big transfer point. Hopefully the stop would be long enough for someone to hose down the floor.

We careened past a cliffside, a gorgeous view that I could almost enjoy through the misery. We passed construction cranes and cinderblocks outside Agadir, a package holiday town more akin to Miami than Morocco. Traversing a tangle of traffic, we pulled into the bus station. Doors sighed open and people pushed towards the front stairs to disembark.

Most of the passengers weren’t staying on for the rest of the ride, so I took advantage of the time before the next batch of grim faces boarded and got myself a primo seat: closer to the front, on the unsunny side, under the blowingest vent I could find. I smiled to myself, privately pleased that I had endured the trip without vomitting. You’re tougher than you think, I congratulated myself. I felt validated,  rewarded by the best seat on the bus.

We sat for awhile. This didn’t surprise me; most non-first-class buses don’t maintain timetables, just wait until the bus is full—or overly full—before departing. A new round of unsmiling people trickled on, along with the usual tissue, jewelery and snack sellers that enter through the front doors, shout the names of their goods as though you couldn’t see what they were, then exit through the back doors. Additionally, a sullen woman with a dirty scowl distributed those Xeroxed scraps of paper, telling her story of hardship, to each passenger; as per usual, she made her way back down the aisle, recollecting the papers and giving an even dirtier look to anyone who didn’t give her a couple coins. Though the paper was hand-written in jagged Arabic and I could have feigned ignorance, her bullying expression inspired me to give her some change.

No one, I noted, was coming to clean up the back stairs. I sighed, taking solace in my good seat and that fact that the worst heat of the day had passed.

The tout poked his head through the open door and pointed accusingly at me. “Tiznit?” he bellowed. I felt all eyes on me. “Tiznit,” I echoed with a nod, confirming my final destination. He gave one hard nod and disappeared.

He came back a couple minutes later, placed his hand surprisingly softly on my shoulder and launched into a choppy French explaination I couldn’t begin to understand as he ushered me off the bus. “Tiznit?” I asked feebly, pointing at my well-earned seat, fading as I stepped down the bus stairs. “Oui, oui, Tiznit,” he replied as he dug my dirty backpack out of the luggage compartment, hoisted over his shoulder, and walked me over to another, scrawnier bus. He tossed my bag into its luggage compartment, patting his hand firmly against the dented side of the bus. “Tiznit!” he assured me, and then was gone into the scurry of bodies and glint of steel that filled the station lot.

I stepped disheartened onto my new bus. The seats were scattered with a couple forlorn looking faces. They looked like they’d been there awhile; from the number of empty seats, I didn’t anticipate leaving any time soon. I flopped into a sun-baked vinyl seat and scowled. Through the window, I watched my sense of victory lumber away on the previous bus.

It was an hour before we left the station. Night fell pinkly and hazily between the palm trees and pebbles outside the window. Exhausted, I surrendered to a neck-jerking broken sleep; I woke just as a row of lights was growing closer.

Instead of a bus station, I was deposited on the side of a half-deserted road. Some teenagers hooted at me as I hoisted on my backpack; I gave them the finger and crossed the street to the Teleboutique. I had to call my hosts—at last, I had arrived.

Vomit Ride Through the Heat-land: Part I

1009173272_3ef7bfbbe6Yesterday I had the most authentic Moroccan experience of my trip so far. It wasn’t in a medina, it wasn’t at any monument; it wasn’t outside of a mosque or inside of carpet shop. It wasn’t in some exotic spice souq, or even with a witch doctor.

It was knees-to-chest, sweating obscenely, holding my breath and trying not a vomit in a catastrophic cauldron that careened its way through the countryside. That is to say, it was on a bus.

There’s two kinds of buses in Morocco: the first-class and the “other.” My previous two bus rides had been on the plush, first-class CTM company. The guidebook doesn’t just recommend CTM; it virtually doesn’t list the times, prices or destinations of other companies. In most cities, CTM’s buses depart from their own seperate offices, far from the chaos and heat and exhaust-laced smell of rotting ass characteristic to most bus stations, not just in Morocco, but around the world.

CTM accepts credit cards and assigns seats; their desk workers speak English. These are not the buses of screaming children or those checkered mesh bags fraying at the plastic seams from the weight of all some old lady’s worldly possessions. These are the buses of laptops and exquisite scarves, polo shirts and heavy gold rings. And independent travelers with Western standards and a low tolerance for long-distance discomfort. Together, we bound competently down the highways, stretching our legs and basking beneath the gentle blow of air-conditioning vents.

Once on board a CTM bus, you usually make a stop at the big messy main bus station before departing a city. In Tangier, I parted my curtain and peered out at the shouting, scrambling insanity of the real bus station. Jam-packed buses, a jumble of children’s bodies and grim faces pressed against tinted glass, heaved and wheezed and lurched haphazardly through the lot, shouting touts hanging from still-open doors. I have to say, I felt kind of like a chump from my kooshy assigned seat in a half-empty bus. At least once on this trip, I told myself, I’ll ride a real bus.

I intended to fulfill this brazen commitment on some short-distance route—45 minutes, an hour tops. Just, you know, to feel like I’d done it, gotten a taste and promptly gotten out.

The problem is, CTM runs infrequent services to only a few destinations, especially towards the south of the country. In my great haste to flee dishearteningly over-touristed Essaouira, I weighed my options: languish at the bus station and continue to get hassled by hotel and taxi touts for two hours while I wait for the CTM bus, and then have to make a connection mid-way through my journey, or hop on a direct “other” bus leaving in 15 minutes. Comfort flew out the window as I climbed the sticky stairs of the second-class bus.

I found an empty seat towards the back, and observed. This was the bus of acne and deep wrinkles, missing teeth and stern expressions. Children didn’t get seats, were left to swim on the laps of their parents. Upholstery was browned; I could feel the springs through the thinned seat fabric. A tout with a scar on his chin and impossibly stained fingers came off and on the bus, taking money, scribbling crude tickets, counting seats. I was grateful for the wobbling vents that blew a little air down from above my seat.

As the seats filled and the horn honked, people continued to pile on. The tout appeared with a stack of plastic stools; he strained to tug them apart and, after some shouting and coordination, placed them in the narrow aisle. Women were given stool seats first, then men; an adolscent clutching a book and a plastic bag was left standing. As the bus began its lumbering, the tout yelled at him to get down. The boy curved himself into the back stairwell—we slid past the officials at the station gates and were on our way.

The tout continued collecting fares and writing tickets as we lurched through the taxi- and scooter-swarmed streets—not an easy task on an old bus with poor shocks and an aisle full of huddled bodies. To get the job done, he balanced his feet on the edges of seats and literally climbed over people, his crotch in this lady’s face, his elbow in that guy’s chest, his entire torso smashed against my already-sweating body. He clutched a fistfull of bills, carefully folded between each finger, and with each new fare, made an almost tenderly careful note on a worn piece of paper.

We left the city center and began up a steep hill. The bus struggled, slowed to a speed scantly faster than a donkey cart. The effort cut out the faint blow of air-conditioning, and arms raised to fiddle hopefully with vents. The boy next to me unscrewed the top to a pocket-sized perfume bottle, pressed it against his nostril and inhaled. The tout distributed black plastic bags—vomit bags, I suspected. Beside me, the boy tossed a jacket over his head, leaned against the window and was gone.

Less than 15 minutes after departing, the adolscent in the stairwell began politely hurling with a liquidus sound into his plastic bag. I could make out, displayed proudly on the top of the windshield, just the last words of the bus company’s name: “Fadl Allah.” I jokingly translated this to myself as “pray to f%^*ing God.” The boy in the stairwell caught his breath and discreetly tied the handles of his bag together.

We made our first stop, and much shouting and shuffling ensued. The tout had the disembarkers already climbing over the aisle-sitters before the bus was stopped. We paused only momentarily; those getting off were left on the dusty roadside, struggling with heavy bags. Stools were cleared for vacated seats, and a new slew of stern faces took their squatting place on the plastic as we bumbled back on the road.

We fell into a determined quiet, just the struggle of the bus, soft conversations and the gentle gagging of vomiters. The scenery was pebbled and stark, branches bent cryptically; with the vent back a’blowing, I was almost comfortable enough to fall into a ragged sleep.

On the Edge of Continents

Flying over, on the way back

Flying over, on the way back

A languid, palm-fringed town perched on the edge of worlds feels like the perfect place to end the Spanish leg of my journey.

English derives the word ¨tarif¨ from the town Tarifa, a port city and entryway into Europe for thousands of years. The city occupies the wind-swept space between places: the end of the Atlantic, the lip of the Mediterranean, where two continents nearly kiss. Instead of the edgy instability of a lot of border towns, Tarifa lazes comfortably in this in-between space. It´s not unlike any other beach town: surf shops and gently weathered buildings, sniffing dogs and barefoot children, blown-out tattoos and sun-bleached hair. The surrounding skies are populated with the cheerful kites of windsurfers, punctuated with the horns of the Tangier ferry. Just across the azure waters (for all its hype, the Mediterranean is truly gorgeous), vampiric African mountains crest hazily—¨vampiric¨ because, despite seeming so touchably close, they´ve eluded all my photography attempts. The narrow passageway of streets in Tarifa´s historical center tell the town´s history like lines dug in a palm: an old city wall, a crumbling castle, the remains of abandoned structures stretching lazily into the waters. And always, in every part of the city, a persistent wind rushes through, a transient resident itself.

DSCN3205I can´t think of anything better than to spend a chilled-out day wandering the streets, sitting at the beach, reading, catching up on writing (and sleep), and generally getting ready for tomorrow´s ferry embarkment. The 35-minute ride will deposit me at sister city Tangier, another meeting of worlds, where I´ll begin my Moroccan odyssey.

Europe is a pleasant, lovely place to travel—it´s clean, safe, everyone speaks English, buses arrive and depart on schedule and people generally leave you alone (even construction workers refrained from cat-calling this afternoon). It´s almost too easy, to be honest, feels like something other than traveling (vacationing?).

The real challenge of Europe is the punch-to-the-kidneys expense. I´ve done it about at cheaply as possible, and am still woefully over budget. Transportation costs took me by surprise. My last European adventure rang in at €36 per day; however, the Eurail pass I prepurchased meant I didn´t pay anything in travel between destinations. Of course, I anticipated Spain to be the most costly leg of my journey, so Morocco and Portugal should even things out, if I behave myself.

Here´s a wrap-up of my Spanish travels:

Number of days: 10

Number of cities: 4

Number of nights in a hostel: 2

Things I liked more than I expected: Flamenco, Madrid

Favorite new travel accessories: hat, spray hand sanitizer

Travel accessories as-of-yet unused: sleeping sheet, laundry detergent

Biggest travel splurge: a universal adaptor from El Corté Ingles (€18, adaptor I brought was busted)

Budget Break-down (frighteningly, I keep this scrupulous of track of my finances even at home…)

Daily average: €45

Transportation: €130.5

Food: €170

Lodging: €46

Entrance fees (museums, attractions): €21

Internet: €21

Coffee and sweet treats (gotta have my indulgences): €26

Other (laundry, adaptor, etc): €31.5


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

Join 3,718 other followers

Tweet this Sh%t

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Buy This Sh#t

Categories