Amsterdam wanderings

Okay kids, we’ve got a lot to go over, and all of it in pictures. Comfy? Good, we’ll dive right in.

In my last post I kind of laid into the Dutch language a bit. I feel I should expound upon that some. For instance, many of words are super easy and logical.  For example, here’s a store that sells really old things:

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Actually makes much more sense than the English spelling, which should be pronounced “Antikweh”?

Heck, even whole phrases are pretty easy to figure out:

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If you plug this phrase into Google Translate, it comes back with “Really, Einstein? Really?”

And once you can figure out phrases, every day directions start to become clear, such as #1 and #4 here.

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“Steek da kaart een da doooor” I’m basically a native speaker already.

However, I still find some signage either interesting, frightening, or just plain noteworthy. Examples:

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Warning: bongos, trumpets, loudspeakers and… covered picnic tables. You really gotta watch that last one… it’s always the quiet ones.
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Rather… aggressively named, no?
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So, the police will spray you with their DNA. I’m not really sure what that entails, but no situation I can imagine ends well.
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I don’t know what this means. And I don’t want to know. It’s just SO MUCH FUN TO SAY.

So let me just conclude with the language here to point out that much of the words seem to have a heavy basis in both English and German, and I would assert that if you just walk around speaking English, while pretending to be the Swedish Chef who is trying to sound German, you’ll basically sound like a local. You can probably get by that way for a couple weeks, easy.

Now, most of my travel has been stumping around in my moonboot. This will change soon, but more on that later. I took time to visit the museum district, and take in the local sculptures. Impressive stuff.

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Oh, your town has sculptures? Isn’t that quaint. We’ve got giant freaking nails, twisted around each other, then COVERED IN PINK TIN FOIL AND FLOATING IN WATER. That’s right.
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And there’s more where that came from.
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More sculpture. Like this piece, which is symbolic of the artists desire to get paid.
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And this one of “reclining woman”
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Followed quickly by “reclining, bisected, Loch Ness Monster”

Along with the sculptures, there’s an interactive art / water fountain that was fun to watch for a while:

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OMG! You’re all soaked!
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Kidding! You’re actually just a designer’s play-thing. Dance, my monkeys, dance!

Since I was already in the museum district, I had to stop by the Van Gogh museum. Now, I haven’t really been a big fan of his before. I have to say that this trip changed that. And actually, I have to blame a lot of my new-found appreciation on a graphic novel I read in their gift store:

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This tells the story of his decision to become an artist, and the mere ten years he spent devoted to it before going mad and dying. Awesome art, great story, highly recommended.

After that, exploring his works and especially seeing the chronology of his work and how it progressed over the short time span was really cool. Theoretically you weren’t supposed to take photos of the pictures, but people were doing that all over the place. I tried to be a good little tourist and just took pictures of the building and surroundings.

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View from inside Van Gogh museum.
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View from inside, OF the inside of the Van Gogh Museum.
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Massive park outside of the museum.

Moving on, you will invariable run into the Flower Market:

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They take their flowers seriously in Amsterdam. There’s an entire market devoted to flowers.
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Flower market
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What can you buy there? Oh just about any bulb imaginable.
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Seriously. Any bulb. Except maybe a light bulb.
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Oh, standard flowers aren’t your thing? How about the most colorful cacti this side of Arizona? Yep.

You can literally spend days just walking around, and especially in summer, you’ll constantly be running into new things as they pop up and change day-to-day.

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Book fair out of nowhere. The next day this become an art show.
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filled with the classics.
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…and more classics.
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Random Thai festival out of nowhere!

And then there are things that are there every day, but still awesome to stumble across:

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Some of the coolest stencil art. Covers an entire block.
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It’s awesome all the way down.
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Rembrandt is, like, at least twice the size of all these soldiers. He’s gonna deliver a mighty whuppin.
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Soccer (err. sorry, “football”, or “futbal”) + cage match + street attraction. Good times.
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Beautiful, ancient architecture. Not necessarily straight though. They didn’t invent rulers until later.

As you walk around, you also notice that not only are flowers taken seriously here, but Ice cream is as well.  This is an attitude I can get behind.  The most ostentatious local example of this is the Magnum Ice Cream Bar Shop, where you can decorate your own Magnum bar with your choice of a wealth of toppings.

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False advertising: jewels and gold filigree were not topping options.
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Ever wonder what bulk nougat looks like? It’s the bowl closest to you.

Now, the people in front of me were choosing safe bets like “marshmallows, coconut and caramelized sugar” or “strawberry sugar, crumbled cookies, and chocolate chips”. Please. Amateurs.

I stepped up and proudly announced my concoction would be the recipient of:
– crushed pistachios: a nutty compliment to the sweetness of the ice cream and chocolate shell.
– Goji berries: add something chewy and tart to the mixture
– Sea salt. At which the lady exclaimed: “oh, gosh, feeling adventurous!” Then she had to search for the salt bowl, leaving me to suspect I am the first to actually order salt. She asked me before assembling the whole thing if I was serious about the sea salt. I nodded gravely.

I don’t joke around where ice cream is concerned.

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Assembling my work of genius.
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Not to put too fine a point on it, but I pretty much hit it out of the park on the first try.

So, full of ice cream (not a day has passed without sampling the local wares), more wandering is to be done. You can’t avoid the canals here, and that’s a good thing. In addition, on the weekend, so long as the weather holds, it sees like the entire town comes out to the center.

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On a sunny day, this town is pretty hard to beat.
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Pretty much everyone comes out to play.
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Which means every square inch of space gets filled with bikes and scooters.

Now, I’ve mentioned bikes a few times. However, I discovered not all bikes are created equal here. For example, since bikes are such an intrinsic part of life here, people have evolved the bike to be a carrier of things. They do this by combining a bike and a wheel barrow.

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Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the cyclebarrel.

Anyway, I resume my ambulation with the canals:

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Seriously. The canals here are just fabulous.
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Yah for pedal boats! In the canals! At this speed you should be finished with your tour by autumn!
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Betcha didn’t expect another canal shot, did ya?

I randomly stumbled on a huge park, which took me about 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Since it was a sunny day, pretty much every part of the grass was full of people sun bathing, bbq-ing, or just chilling. This pictures doesn’t do justice to the sheer mob of people at the park.

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acres and acres of park, covered with humanity.

But even as crowded as it was, the park was large enough, and diverse enough, to offer places that somehow had no people.

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peace amid chaos.

near the center of the park, there was a bandstand set up, and I got to watch what I assume is a local band (Cirque Valentin) put on a show:

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A mix between punk, rock, and manga
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synchronized dancing! There’s nothing this group can’t do!

Now, after all my days of wandering, I’m pretty much in love with the city.  What I’m NOT in love with, however, is the hostels here.  I suppose I’m spoiled by my experiences in Spain, but each hostel I’ve been to here has been more hurried and impersonal, and doesn’t lend itself to the cool communal atmosphere I experienced in Spain.  Plus, they are so busy that I was having to move almost every day, which was getting old.

So, I’ve splurged on a hotel room now.  And boy did I forget how nice it was to just have your own room.  Plus I have a balcony with a view.  Life is good.

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I have a view of a canal. Your hotel is inferior.

About hostels

Before heading out on my grand adventure, I wasn’t sure how I would control costs, especially for housing.  Hotels were right out: if you look into the average cost for a night in a hotel in Europe, you can see I’d quickly go bankrupt).  Besides, staying in hotels leaves you so separate.  You retreat to your fresh linen, 24 hour concierge, and bedside room service.  This is lovely for a weekend getaway, but I wanted to get to know the places I was in, along with the people.

So I signed up for a site called couchsurfing.com.  This is a great idea: if you have a place people can stay and you love to meet new people from different places, you can offer up your couch (bed, futon, whatever) and people can send you messages asking if they can stay with you.  This would be perfect for me: I get to stay with local people and learn the city and culture through their eyes!  perfect!

Well, apparently, there are few limitations to this.  First: many people are offering couches “to women only”.  Seems a bit creepy if it’s a guy hosting, but alright.  Secondly, I think being a large American man, traveling alone, also throws some people off as I sent out a few requests and got no reply.  How are they to know I’m not the next great serial killer?  The few replies I did get were either off on their own trips, or already hosting people.  So I hear couchsurfing.com is awesome if you are a young female.  I’m pretty far removed from both those descriptors.

So, eventually I found another site: airbnb.com.  Excellent and highly recommended.  The way this works: you have a room that you aren’t using, you can put it up on airbnb for rent.  Someone traveling in your area can rent it (for a day, a week, a month, whatever).  You get extra income, they get a place to stay and a local to talk with, everybody wins!  My experience with this in Mexico was fantastic, and in Madrid was pretty good as well.

However, since leaving Madrid, I’ve been staying in hostels.  Now I had some dire warnings about hostels before embarking on this trip:

Hostels can often be located in sketchy neighborhoods

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Doesn’t breed confidence.

The insides can be a little rougher than you might be used to

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You need to make the bed before sleeping in it. Enjoy your stay.

And some hostels will try to attract you with somewhat questionable features

At no extra cost!
Also included: air.

Lastly, it was very clear to me that I would be the absolute oldest person in existence to ever set foot across the threshold of a “youth hostel” (named such for a reason, doncha know).

My experience so far:

First hostel in Seville: Backpackers Triana.

  • Clean and very well run, with people that were bi- or tri-lingual.
  • Amenities included a rooftop deck complete with hot tub.
  • Cost: 11 euro per night.
  • Bonus: in the 6-bed dorm I was in, I was actually the youngest person.  Craziness.

Following such a successful stay, I had to try again.  So, I drove to Malaga for the day, then to Granada for the night.

Second hostel: Granada inn backpackers (I figured it might be related to the one in Seville)

  • Clean, new, and HUGE.
  • One of the employees took everyone out for a “tapas crawl” on the city.  Excellent way to get to know everyone.
  • Cost: between 12 – 15 euro per night.
  • I was, indeed, the oldest person around.  But the young’uns took me in regardless.

So, after another excellent experience, I tried again in Valencia, to even better results.

Purple Nest Hostel, Valencia

    • Again, very clean, modern, and professionally run.
    • Super close to great nightlight, the “city of arts and sciences”, core downtown, parks, everything.
    • Cost: 15 euro.
    • Bonus: common area with beer taps, wine on sale, and major cooking events each night. Cue giant pan of paella:

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Lastly (so far): Barcelona. I stayed in the sister-hostel of the one in Valencia, Yellow Nest:

  • Super friendly staff, regular nightly activities.
  • Excellent crowd of international travelers eager to make new friends and go out exploring.
  • Cost: between 13 – 18 euro.
  • Bonus: Movie room, from which we watched the European Futbal Final, as well as nightly movies for whoever doesn’t want to partake in the madness / drinking games / music sing-alongs going on in the common rooms.

In addition, I’ve found that cooking large meals in the common kitchen with a bunch of new-found friends is a pretty great wrap-up to the day.  In Barcelona we have 6 people and rotated responsibilities for a few nights, so you always get a surprise, or when it’s your turn you get sincere thanks and appreciation for what you provide.  Great atmosphere.

So, down sides to staying in hostels:

  • You are going to be sharing rooms with people.  This means snoring is inevitable.  As is people stumbling in drunk at 3am (or later).
  • Showers can be hit-and-miss.  Some are great, many employ various water-saving methods that can be annoying.
  • If you are over 30 (or in your mid-40’s like me) you WILL be with powerfully young people most of the time.  This can be good!  Can also be… odd.  Your mileage may vary.
  • Not everyone in the hostel will be awesome.  But that’s true pretty much anywhere.

So, in conclusion, I have to say that hostel stays have been absolutely fantastic for me.  If you are traveling in a manner where you don’t want to meet new people, have a rigid itinerary, or really REALLY need all the comforts of a 5-star hotel, by all means avoid the hostels.  If you are open and flexible and love meeting new people, then you really can’t go wrong with hostels (at least from what I’ve seen in Spain).  Perhaps I’ll have worse experiences as I head north, but so far I’m sold.

Malaga, Granada.

Leaving Sevilla was much easier than getting there (meaning I only got lost and turned around twice, and didn’t end up in any scary narrow alleys). In short order I was on the road to Malaga.

One of the benefits of driving instead of taking a train or a plane is that you can stop at places that look interesting.  And so it was that I ended up stopping in a town that bursted with odd parallels for me.  I initially stopped to try to get a picture of the massive fields of olive trees that march from horizon to horizon across the rolling hills here.  I ended up just taking pictures of the town.

So, the odd parallels: turns out the town’s name is Estepa, which reminded me of my friends Note and Arta Estapa (note: first names changed ’cause, well, internet).

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Estepa, Purdy no?
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Victoria Tower. Near the top of the city. Also pretty.

So, I travel steeply up tiny, winding alley-like roads (it’s Spain, you come to accept this), and I eventually get near the top only to discover there is a place here called Church of Carmen. Having just come from Playa Del Carmen, that rings a bell for me.

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Church of Carmen. Doesn’t sound quite as fun as Playa

Not only that, it’s on top of “San Cristobal Hill”. You may recall I was in San Cristobal, Mexico not so long ago. Spooky.

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On top of San Cristobal Hill

I didn’t stay too long, both for fear of uncovering even more parallels, then turning a corner and running into my future self who would divulge the exact day and time that I would die. I’ve seen the movies, this is how these things go.

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Also: Santa Clara convent
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Another view.
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Picturesque. The whole town is like this. Quaint.

So, after bailing out of there, the next stop was Malaga.

Now, nobody told me about Malaga. I mean, other than to say: “oh, hey, while you are in Spain, you should see these 47 cities” (of which Malaga was one). So, I arrive with expectations that this will be a sleepy little coast town and give me my first glimpse of the Mediterranean.

My expectations were a bit too low:

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The beach proudly proclaims itself.

So it turns out to be a major vacation town with a fantastic tourist center.

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Malaga. Not a sleepy beach town.

Downtown all the streets are wide and clean, with marble sidewalks and palm trees.

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These streets were made fer walkin’…

The beach, however pretty, doesn’t really hold a candle to the Maya Riviera in Mexico. The sand is more like dirt, and there’s crazy winds that blow up huge clouds of dust. Also: water was a bit chilly and there are no waves to be seen.

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The wind was something else though.

However! The town itself is stellar. I started by discovering stairs that slope and zigzag up the side of a hill:

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They were made to be climbed. You really have no choice.
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The steps go on for quite a while. But with lovely views.
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The views get better as you go up.

These steps lead you to the base of Castle Gibralfaro, which is a massive castle that affords you amazing views of the entire town since it is perched at the top of the highest hill smack in the center of the city.

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The castle dominates
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Did I mention the views?
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Walkin’ around the castle.
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Castle. City. Yep: awesome views.
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Well, it’s Spain, you HAVE to have a bullfighting ring, yes?
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One hill not covered quite yet with houses.
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So, yeah. City is big.
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Hotel at the top of the hill. Spendy? Probably.

So, once you come down off the hill and the castle, you’ve got a huge city to walk around and see. I didn’t take nearly as much time as one could to explore this place, mostly ’cause I had no idea what I was in for and had already reserved a hostel in Granada for the night. A few more things I was able to fit in:

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Down from the castle, you’ve got a theater. Not in use, apparently

Apparently some famous artist was born and grew up here:

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Picasso’s building.
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Picasso’s pad
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Picasso chilled here.
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Picasso’s dad worked here.

So yeah; there’s museums (one devoted to Picasso), a massive cathedral, and a bunch more about this town, not to mention all the restaurants, a huge shopping walk along the pier, and more. One could (and probably should) spend many days here. But I was off to Granada.

I rolled into Granada about 7:30, and experienced a new level of confusion: the hostel I was to stay in was on an alley so narrow and small it didn’t show up on maps. So that’s fun. Turns out to be a fantastic hostel though. In the previous hostel I was surprised to be the youngest one there. This one turned out to be a real “youth” hostel, but the kids took the old man in regardless and we went out for tapas on the town.  Good finish for the day.

Next up: Granada and the journey to Valencia.

Luck and Art

“Luck never gives; it only lends”
– Swedish proverb

I have ridiculous luck with traveling. Several examples I could pull from the amazingly friendly people I met in Mexico (situations that could have ended badly but worked out amazingly). The most recent example is my serendipitous luck when randomly selecting a place to stay in Madrid.

Here is my genius approach: I want to travel as long as possible, thus I need to make money stretch. Also, I would prefer to stay with locals to get more a feel for what life in the culture is like. So, I use airbnb.com to find local people willing to rent a room which is far cheaper than a hotel and far more personal. For Madrid, I knew nothing about the layout of the town so I loaded a map, tried to find a place that seemed somewhat central, then narrowed the search on airbnb to that general area. From that I selected the cheapest option that had good reviews from previous occupants.

The result could be any number of things: I could end up staying in a cardboard box, sharing it with a heroin addict who needs a few bucks to get by. Or the basement in a slum area of town (I have no knowledge if the area I pick is “good” or “bad”). Or my place could be a long taxi drive from any of the places you really want to see in the city.  The pitfalls are limitless.

But no: the actual result is that I have a place that is pretty much right in the middle of the three main museums (Prado, Reina Sofia, Thyssen), a monstrous park to put Central Park to shame (Parque De El Retiro) as well as lively and active street scenes, bars, restaurants and too many historic buildings to count. Pretty much perfect for someone to see the city by foot.

So, a few notes from my wanderings in Madrid so far:

First, just the basic streets are amazing and filled with things worth ogling:

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Pretty much every little street is stupidly quaint and awesome like this.
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The big streets are equally beautiful and impressive. Note: we missed out by not making “Midtown Madness – Madrid”
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Historic buildings pretty much everywhere.
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In Madrid even parking lots are art.
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And apparently they like trains. Lots of ’em.
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I think this is the front of the train station. Beats the pants off any train station I’ve been to in the US.
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Er… giant baby head. ‘Cause… why wouldn’t you?
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More pretty, just your average street in Madrid.
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Independence arch

Next up: the park. Parque de el Retiro isn’t “retirement park”, as in “for retired people to come sit at”, but basically “park of the pleasant retreat”. And I can’t argue with that. So it’s basically a huge (350 acres) park in heart of the city. However, it’s not just a bunch of grass and shrubberies. For example, many parts are immaculately manicured:

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Picture = not doing it justice.

And there are these amazing Dr. Seuss trees:

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Who speaks for the truffula trees?

The rest of the park is equally impressive, and I haven’t seen nearly all of it:

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Perfect for jogging. And there’s a lot of ’em.
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Need a lake in your park? Sure, we’ve got that.
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Complete with giant amazing monument. Naturally.
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And statues. Cause your park isn’t really a PARK until it’s filled with works of art.
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350 acres of beautiful.
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Fountains? Sure, more than your can count.

Right, you get the idea.

Okay, on to Museums. I went to the “Museo Del Prado”. Those of you reading carefully will notice this is not spelled to end with an “a” and is thus not a museum of very nice handbags. No, instead this is a museum full of art and sculpture to rival anything Paris has to offer. Protip: after 7 at night access to Museums is free.

Now, museums can get numbing for me after a while.  My excitement runs in a pretty linear line:

Initial approach: “Oh my god I’m going to see the finest works of art in the world and absorb all the culture, talent, history and beauty!!! AAAAAAA!!!!!”

First 10 minutes: spent ogling, dissecting, and studying the first painting I come across.  I believe I’ve come to understand the brush stroke method, the mood of the painter as he approached the canvas, and have begun to debate the interpretation provided on the placard provided: it doesn’t really understand the motive of the artist like I do.

Next hour: each painting get’s 1/2 the time of the previous one.  Doing quick math you can determine that by the end of the hour I am a light-speed streak blazing through rooms leaving confused bystanders in my wake.

Last hour: I’ve found a bench from which I can not only see many pieces of so called “art”, but more importantly I can watch and judge people from my comfortable seat of power.  I start to fantasize about crepes.

However, a few things that stood out for me.

The Prado has a HUGE collection of religious (catholic) art.  Some of it boring, some of it amazing.  A couple that stood out for me:

  • Juan Pantoja De La Cruz: el Nacimiento De La Virgen.  This was a commissioned piece that shows the queen and her sisters as well as her mom at the virgin birth.  Seems to be taking some liberties with history, no?  Wasn’t this, oh I don’t know, blasphemy to insert yourself and your family into these events?  I guess commissioning these types of images was popular for the rich back then.  Or maybe I botched the interpretation?
  • Roger Van Der Weyden – el Descendimiento:  This was stunning in person, it looked almost like it was carved, the impression of dimension was so real.  I had to look at it from several angles to believe it was just a canvas.  Amazing.

Also, I found a really awesome triptych (3-part painting).  It was the story of Nastagio Delhi Onesti, and it basically goes:  this guy was rejected for marriage by his love and so left the city to live in the woods.  There he sees a woman pursued by a mastiff and a rider.  She is brought down and the rider opens her rib cage and feeds her heart to the dogs.  The rider explains he too was rejected and then took his own life, damning him to hell.  She was indifferent if this and as a result was damned to hell following her death.  Now they repeat this chase every Friday as their hellish doom, her running, him cutting her heart out, into infinity.  So Nastagio – does he grieve for this tragic couple?  No!  He invites his love’s family to a feast in the forest the next Friday.  They all think they are coming to this lovely picnic type of thing when all of sudden they see this horrendous chase / murder / dog feeding affair. After witnessing this, the woman that spurned him agrees to marry.

Dark, no?  Sheesh.  Love it.

I didn’t take any pictures from inside as that seemed to be in poor taste. Here’s a few from the surroundings though:

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Even the grounds around the museum get to be art.
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Beautiful church out back
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Inside, purty as well.
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Lighting votive candles has been modernized. Here you see a bank of LED-lit candles that you can light up by depositing 1 euro. Takes a bit of the romance out of the practice, I feel.

Whew.  And that’s just day one of Spain.  This is going to be a good month.

Espana!

Wine gives great pleasure; and every pleasure is of itself a good.  It is a good, unless counterbalanced by evil.   
– Samuel Johnson

Madrid.

Many, many years ago, the Elder Wanker regaled me with tales of Spain. From this I developed a mental image of a beautiful country, filled with beautiful people who take their time with most things, but especially meals. The vision of sitting at an outdoor café, enjoying red wine and some tapas in the warm night air, music wafting gently, people chatting happily in Spanish as the night ages into the wee hours of the morning, with the thick smell of an historic city around me, has lingered as one of my dreams for traveling for over a decade.

So it was that I landed in Madrid with lofty expectations. From the plane the countryside is picturesque; rolling hills with winding roads connecting tiny hamlets with red-tile roofs. As Madrid comes into view, I notice a sprawling city with 4 impressive skyscrapers jutting to the sky. To view all this, it seems my dreams are not far from reality.

Once out of the airplane, a little reality creeps in: I’m on my own, with a tenuous grasp of Spanish, in Spain where I hear people speak so rapidly that even fluent Mexicans have trouble understanding sometimes. I have only an address to go by, and it’s another of those strange ones that I’m not sure how to parse:

Calle amour de dios n8 2

The first part (street name) is clear, and the “n8” is likely the apartment number, but what is this extra “2” there? Hopefully it all makes sense to the cab driver.

Once I tell the driver “calle amour de dios” he has enough information, and we take off through the city. The streets we travel are wide, clean and busy. The buildings are a mix of old and newer with some that stately declare their age to be more than 2 centuries old simply by the ornateness of their roofs, windows, doors and walls. Eventually we thread our way through a tiny cobbled street with multi-floor buildings close-in on both sides, barely enough room for a compact car to get through. We come to a large green door with the number “8” on it, and the driver lets me out.

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A lovely building! Now how to get in?

I figure this is building 8, and the “2” in the address is for apartment 2. There is a call button array by the door, so I pay the driver and am ready to meet my new landlord.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more buttons than anticipated. For the number 2, there are actually 4 buttons, each with some words that I have no idea how to interpret (izda, dcha, ctro).

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Izda? Dcha? Are these new elements for the periodic table?

So, nothing for it but to try all of them, which I do. This yields me one reply from a somewhat terse sounding woman, whom I shakily squeak out “Perdon, eres Antonio?” thinking perhaps I misunderstood the name I got from airbnb and it was actually Antionia, instead of Antonio. No such luck; she mutters something that I can only interpret as negative and I’m left again on the street. Luckily, there is an internet café right next door, so I get a station, log onto mail, and see if Antonio has replied to my mail from yesterday asking for more specific directions. He has not. I also find they have public phones at this tiny café, so I try the phone number provided. No answer.

Hmm.

It is, however, a beautiful day. The weather is perfect: about 22 (71F) degrees with light clouds and mostly blue sky. I decide to lug my 400 lbs of backpack around the town to take in the sights while I wait for either inspiration or Antonio to strike.

Now, picture an old European town.  Cobbled, winding streets, old, stately houses and buildings, pedestrian-friendly with quaint shops and little cafe’s punctuating every block.  Now picture what happens if a city with over 3 million people (more than 6 if you count the surrounding areas) grows up.  Potential disaster, no?  No.  Madrid has weathered the growth amazingly well.  The city still feels small and welcoming, even though it spreads in all directions for miles.  The streets are just as described above.  I find myself lost amid the architecture and winding streets, but once I mark a couple main streets in my memory I feel confident to wander ever wider.

After some hours of this, I check in with the internet café again.  Nothing.  As I leave again somewhat deflated, I realize that now is the time to get a phone.  I’ve heard that phones in Europe are very cheap and you can easily live on a pre-paid plan, no contract required.  This is so foreign to my American sensibilities that I distrust it.  However, it turns out to be exactly true.  For 27 euros and 5 minutes of time I have a phone with it’s own number and 5 euros credit on it to get me started.  Fabulous.  So now I try Antonio from MY phone.

Success!  He answers and I try to explain in my stumbling Spang-lish who I am and where I am.  He tells me to meet him at the house in 5 minutes.  He turns out to be a man with a broad and quick smile, probably in his early 30’s, and in possession of much better English than my Spanish.  he sets me up with a room, keys and internet.  all is good with the world again.

Once in my bedroom I realize I’ve been awake for around 24 hours, so I am unable to refuse the call of the bed.  However, at 10 I wake, walk to a local tapas restaurant I saw earlier, and my dream from so many years ago is realized:

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Tosta with egg, potato and Iberian ham. Oh, and wine. Of course the wine.

Finances and footwear

Often heard: Man I wish I could just quit my job and travel.

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do this vacation / trip / sabbatical / Walkabout (shall we just call it a “sabbabout”?).  I’m constantly aware of this and thankful.

However, when I talk to people who want to do this about what is in their way, the first reason is usually money.  That’s a fine reason.  However, the surprising thing is that you do not need a lot of money to do this.  The good folks over at GoCurryCracker.com are spending a lot of time in Mexico, and they are doing all the work to detail their expenses every month so you can see what it actually costs.  Go check out their expenses page if you want some details.

My example: PDC is much more expensive than the inland Mexico, and even here I can live very well on less than $1k per month.  For example you can rent a furnished room in a house within a 10 minute walk to the beach for ~$500 per month, which includes everything (water, electricity, internet, etc).  If you are willing to be further from the beach it can be even cheaper, and if you really just want your own place, I’ve seen apartments advertised for around $400.  You can cook food at your place very cheaply, or eat out every day for between $2-$10 per person per meal.

Granted I’m missing out on things like Air Conditioning (and oh my; this is a rather important thing, it’s the one luxury that I’m considering adding back in somehow if I find myself in this country again), but still; I eat well, I’ve got a nice place, and I can be on the beach daily.

However, there have been some unforeseen expenses.  Let’s start with shoes.

I came to Mexico with three pairs:

  • My “every day walking shoes” which are some old cross trainers I’ve had for 5 years or so.
  • My “zero drop” running shoes (tiny and light, so they pack well in the Backpack of Doom).
  • Sandals.

Now, in PDC it turns out that the only reason to put on shoes is if you are going for a bit of a run.  The every day footwear is sandals.  I was quite happy with my sandals, until one night out on the town they suffered Structural Incoherence:

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Walking home barefoot at 3am is a delicate thing

Much sadness.  They were good sandals.  So I attempted to replace them with the closest replica I could find.  These worked just fine for a couple days, when (again, one night out on the town), the left one began to suffer the same fate as their brethren.

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Note to self: sandals and dancing don’t mix

So it was that I found myself shopping for footwear again.  This is more shoe shopping than I’ve done in the past 5 years, I think.  My keen mind quickly deduced that the common structural failure for these failed footwear products was that toe-thingy.  Get rid of that, no problem, right?

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Structural issues resolved. I’m a genius

However, these are causing a horrible chaffing on one side of my foot.  I’ve tried putting band-aids over the chaffing spot, but it’s so hot out that the band-aid falls off within minutes (note: my super power is the ability to sweat profusely, apparently even on the side of my foot), so I’ll need to purchase yet ANOTHER pair.

So, yeah, this is the sinister hidden costs of life in Mexico.  I’ve been instructed to buy some name-brand sandals next.  I won’t mention the name until I try them out and can vouch for them.

And that’s more than I ever thought I would write on the topic of sandals.

Hey Buddy, can you spare a screwdriver?

“¿Tiene usted un destornillador?” I asked, hoping the translation was correct, or at least close. She looked at me concerned for a moment.

Mind you, this is not covered in my daily Spanish classes. We haven’t gotten to the point where we are covering household tools or construction of various store-bought objects. Yet I found myself in a room that could double as a steam room, with the pieces of a floor fan in my lap, sweat dripping down my nose, asking for a screwdriver.

But I get ahead of myself:

While I was grateful to have a place in PDC with the Mexican family that hosted me (and they were very friendly and accommodating), the room I was in was less than conducive to writing, sleeping, drawing, and general well being. So, I took to the internets to help me find a new place.

Success was found through Airbnb.com in the form of a room to rent in this lovely house here:

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Compared to the concrete room I was in before, this is house is absolutely beautiful and adorable. I found that I would have a room to myself on the 2nd floor:

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And I even get a quaint little balcony, should I get the urge to sing “don’t cry for me Argentina” at night:

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Plus, the place is surrounded by these giant, complex, tropical trees that let me pretend I’m living in a jungle. Machete is, so far, optional:

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To add to all this, my housemate / landlord is a local tour guide, so she knows all the most amazing places around here, knows history and culture, and lets me alternate between Spanish and English so I can practice Espanol but still eventually get a point across. On top of all that, the rent is cheaper than the room with the family, and I get to control what I have for breakfast. Perfect!

One drawback: my room, as it turns out, is basically an oven.

No problem, there’s a ceiling fan. One pull of the chain yields… not a lot. The fan blades leisurely turn at a rotation of about once per hour. Elisabeth explains that she has asked “the man” to get it fixed, but in Mexico things happen on their own time. So she provides a boxed fan, some assembly required.

Thus I find myself sitting on the bed, squinting at a construction manual (en espanol, natch), and realizing that there is but one thing I need: un destornillador. After she stares at me long enough for me to think I better leap back to the translator app and try some other tactic, she goes off and I hear many rummaging sounds from the adjacent room. while she is looking, I discover that the blades on the power plug work perfectly well for the larger screws. Eventually she comes back with a steak knife that lets us get the smaller screws sorted.

And now I sit here, with the fan blowing me in the face, in a lovely nueva casa.  Life is good.

I highly recommend airbnb.com.  Great site for finding temporary housing.  I also highly recommend living in this house if you are ever in Playa.  It’s listed in airbnb as “room in a Mexican Caribbean House” and it is excellent.

Livin’ la vida Mexicano

Part of my planning for living abroad yet being frugal was to rent a room with locals. This, I figured, would be perfect: I get to save money, and improve my Spanish by speaking with the people I live with on a regular basis. So, through my school I arranged to be hosted by a local Mexican family, and breakfast would be included each day. I could stay as long or as short as I like because I’ll be paying by the week. Also, unlike staying at a hotel which can be around $150 – $200 or more per day, this would be $200 per WEEK, with breakfast! Sounds perfect, no?

So, let’s check in with reality, shall we?

First off, my concerns before arriving were principally:

  • Will the home have WiFi?

Upon leaving the comfortable and excellent hotel, I realized I had another problem:

  • Most buildings here don’t have addresses.

To get around in Mexico, you get an address like the following: “calle 34 entre ave 25 y 30”.  This translates roughly to: “on 34th street, between 25th ave and 30th ave”.  That’s how my school was noted, and I had no problems finding it, because it has a huge bloody sign out and looks like a vacation in the middle of the city.  How will I find the house I’m to stay at?

Well, luckily, this house seems to have modernized: they have a “casa 6” added to their address, so all I have to do is get between ave 25 and 30, and find a house with a 6 on it.  Simple.  Also: the avenues increment by 5’s here, so it’s just one block between 25 and 30.

So, I leave school, pick up my luggage from the hotel, and begin my trek from 6th street to 34th street.  It’s about 2pm, and the sun is in full force, as is the humidity.  I have wisely chosen to pack my backpack with everything I could ever need for Mexico, Spain, Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway.  So it weighs, roughly, 400 pounds.

Do you remember those tourist stores I lambasted when I discussed 5th ave?  Turns out they have AC on full blast.  Each store along the way was visited by a large foreigner, sweating so profusely that his pores were basically spraying sweat at strangers, who stood for several minutes under the blasting AC and sweat egregiously at their clientele.  Thank you trinket shops, I will never speak ill of you again.

Long story short: I found the house, dropped my back and knocked on the door, practicing in my head: “Hola, me llamo Korey” and “Encantada”, which I’m told is roughly “my name is Korey” and “Pleased to meet you”, but could actually mean “My dog’s name is Korey” and “A Jihad on your family!”.  So I’m a bit nervous, and I’m quite aware that since it looks like I took a swim fully clothed while carrying a backpack, I’m not the most presentable of guests.

no answer.

I knocked again, trying to knock “politely”, wondering what to say if the person who answers just glares at me and says “que pasa?”.  I sure don’t have the words for “Hi, I’m going to stay at your house and you’ll make be breakfast” yet.

Still no answer.

Panic rising, realizing I have no place to stay, and nobody really to ask if I’ve been given wrong directions, I knock again, a little more forcefully.  Still nothing.

So I give up and go across the street to get some water to replace the 40% body mass I have exuded through my pores.  Looking back across the street, I see two young foreigners walking toward the house.  I track them, and sure enough, they head to the very door I was knocking on.  I’m saved!

After intercepting them, they handle everything, showing me that I should have gone up the stairs to knock (I had no idea that was the same place), and they introduce me to my host, Alma, and they all have some laugh in Spanish about the sweaty doofus with the giant backpack.

So, fast forward a bit: the last couple days have been quite a change from staying at the hotel, laying on the beach, and consuming everything 5th ave has to offer with the Elder.  Now I wake every morning in a panic about how to say basic things:

“May I fill my water bottle?” (Puedo servirme agua?)

“Thank you for breakfast, the food was great” (estuvo muy rica el desayuno, muchas gracias)

“I think I may have left a lake of sweat back in my room, do you have a mop?” (su aplicación de traducción es inútil en esta situación)

So, I’m forced to actually use what little Spanish I have, which is good.  Alma and her family are super friendly and patient, which is quite a relief as well.  I constantly wonder what social faux pas I’m enacting every day, but I’ll learn over time I guess.

A quick tour of my new place.  Very different from the Hotel.  This is the street entrance.  You can see the stairs on the left that lead to the family’s area.  The lit doorway leads to the student rooms:

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This hallway leads past the room where the other students (Michael and Sabrina) stay, to my room:
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And here’s my room:
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Modest, but complete, and I have my own key so I can come and go as I please without disturbing anyone. Plus: I have WiFi.
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The only thing I’m missing now is AC. Notice that the bed has no blanket?  That’s because only a suicidal person would try to put something over themselves here.  I might just trade my leg for a bit of AC. Maybe I can sleep in one of the tourist shops?

Meebus the travel monkey

If you have never been to Playa Del Carmen (PDC), then there are couple things you should know:

  1. You really should fix that problem.  It’s freaking paradise.  And-
  2. There are two PDC’s.  The Las Vegas-ified area on Calle 5 (5th street), and the rest of it.

I figure to do proper justice to PDC, I should fully explore both sides.  So I will sample everything Playa Del Vegas has to offer on weekends, and explore the “real” PDC the rest of the week.  Fair?  I thought so.

First, however, I must introduce you to my traveling companion: Meebus.

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Meebus wasn’t always a travel monkey.  No, he started his career as a beer monkey.  Last summer, my friend BC arranged for a bunch of us to pile into a van and hit up every Seattle brewery we could in one day.  Meebus joined us and quickly became the group mascot.

meeb

However, he has given up his beery ways and opted for a life of travel.  So you’ll be seeing him from time to time.  It’s a good life, Meebus.  Enjoy it.

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Quick recommendation if you do come to PDC and wish to be close to all the action: The Hotel Illusion is a cool little boutique place with the absolute friendliest people ever.  It’s right off of 5th, super close to the beach, and small enough that within a day everyone knows you by name.  Plus, they make you towel elephants:

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Caveat: I added the hat. I’m artistic like that.

More to come, but right now I need to insert tacos into my mouth.

Woah, slow it down a bit…

Detox begins.  My personal detox, in addition to being a recovery from the debacle that was my last night in Portland, is about getting some time away from… well pretty much everything.  Detox from too much food, alcohol, technology, big-cities, high-stress lifestyle, and constant connectedness.  What better place to do this than 9 miles outside of the sleepy burg that is Jacksonville, Oregon?

So, the couchsurfing continues.  However, when your couch is a private room, it’s not really roughing it:

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When I tell people that I will be staying outside of Jacksonville, what I really mean is I’m staying at the end of a dirt road, in the middle of trees, dirt and not a lot else.

You know you aren’t in Kansas anymore when you pass signs like this one:

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Staying at D&J’s (no affiliation with the housemasters D+J) means a few things:

  • No cell service.
  • Clean, clear air and unpopulated places to run or walk in.
  • Dial-up internet service (yes, that still exists.  Yes, it is actually WORSE than you are imagining)

However, this affords me time to focus on a number of goals I have for this adventure:

  • Writing.  Not just this blog, but also novels and some short stageplays.
  • Drawing.  I used to draw incessantly.  Once I “went corporate”, all that stopped.  Do I still have any skills in this?  Will I still enjoy doing it?
  • Eating right.  I have learned a lot about the right foods to eat in the last few years.  However, in my high stress, fast-paced life I frequently succumbed to eating things that I knew were terrible for me.  And you have only to reference my Portland catastrophe for some very recent evidence.
  • Exercise.  I have run a marathon before, but I didn’t run it well.  I’ve always carried too much fat and not enough lean muscle.  Between eating right, exercise, and low stress, perhaps I can change that.

So, lofty goals.  These are things that people often work their whole life at, not things that you figure out in one week spent in the rogue valley.  The point for me is to begin some good habits that I can carry with me on my travels.  Six months into the adventure I hope to see a change in many ways.

However, I anticipate there will still be the occasional food and drink catastrophe along the way.  After all, I believe in the saying “everything in moderation.  Even moderation”.