The morning I was to leave Beaufort for my seven week venture abroad in Europe and Africa, my father held out his hand with three small, white and black-speckled pebbles, asking me to choose one. “Take it with you wherever you go and bring it back,” he told me. The other two were for him and my younger sister Chloe who was coming with me for the first three weeks in Europe. My parents have always supported our passion for world travel, but with the message of never forgetting where we come from.
This series of articles on my travels promises not to be your typical account on wining and dining abroad. For one, I am a low-budget traveler – the less money, the more adventure. Besides, I’m broke. Also, I intentionally try to plan as little as possible as far as my itinerary goes. When I’m traveling with a destination in mind, sure, I’ll buy my bus, train and plane tickets in advance; but the more I travel the more I find it necessary to be open to the locals I will meet and their recommendations. Experiencing, say, Spain, is about immersing myself in the local culture as a traveler and not a tourist because, after all, traveling is about understanding our big world through the eyes of many others.
I landed in Madrid, the capital of Spain, on a Sunday afternoon with my sister Chloe, our childhood friend Woody, and a friend of mine from middle school who now lives in Los Angeles named Jelissa. On this Sunday the streets are quite empty and the shops are closed. The Catholic city appears to be home resting. We locate our modest youth hostel where we’ve booked a private, four-person room for $11 a night. Soon after we drop off our luggage, we happen upon a sophisticated rooftop terrace from which we can peer over the narrow cobblestone streets and terracotta roofed apartments with their wrought iron balconies, a national draft beer in hand. I know I’m not in Beaufort anymore. Yet even as we walk through the manicured Spanish gardens where couples kiss publicly on park benches, or pass by the century old statues as tall as houses, I don’t feel the usual shock I associate with landing in an environment so different from home. There is something homey about being back in Europe again.
Fighting the jet lag on our first night, we agreed to check out trendy Chueca, the well-known gay district that our friend Woody had researched. Within minutes of descending into a dark bar predominantly packed with well-dressed men, an Argentinian man made his way to Woody. Outside later, as the Argentinean professed his “love” for my friend – who was probably wishing he could move on to the next one – I found myself in conversation with a 42-year-old man from Madrid about his search for “true love” amidst the pool of promiscuous gays in Madrid. He and I had nothing in common, really, except for our feminine ideals of love, which apparently come in all shapes and sizes.
The next day in Madrid was my sister Chloe’s 22nd birthday, which we spent perusing the Salvador Dalis and Picassos and Man Rays of the Reina Sofia national art museum (free on Mondays from 7-9 p.m.). By recommendation, we had dinner in a restaurant called El Tigre, where every beer ordered was served with a free platter of tapas like chorizo, potato tarts and cheese. Spaniards stood out in the streets promoting their respective bars or clubs with the offer of a free “chupito” (shot) or glass of sangria upon entrance. It’s not a trick necessarily. Sometimes the shots are sugary guises and the bar is crap. Other times, the sangria is delicious and the scene is boisterous with dancing. Locals in Spain don’t typically start drinking until midnight; and so with a stagnated start, it’s not surprising that at five in the morning, we found ourselves trekking to an after-party bar by invitation, where the dancing with Cubans and Spaniards and Russians and Scotts continued.
It was sometime between late night and early morning that I found myself sitting on a random street in Madrid among a group of new local and international friends. My environment still did not strike me as unnatural. In fact, it felt like home in many ways. Pausing from conservation with Alejandro of Madrid to my left, I saw my sister to my right wearing the headphones of the Senegalese boys and Jelissa just in front laughing with the Russians and Scottish. The only bit about the moment that seemed surreal was the sun that was suddenly rising. I wasn’t prepared to catch our train in just a few hours, nor to part with this pulse of peace among such culturally different people. Our next destination would be Valencia, where I lived for five months about two years ago.