I’m starting 2017 with a reflection on my New Year celebration in Spain two years ago. It was another check mark on my new year / new city goal (I tick this year’s box in Sihanoukville, Cambodia). I have been wanting to share a bit of the Spain story in general but I also think my feelings towards the unknown and yearly transitions are particularly apt as I enter my first days of travel in Asia. I pulled this story from the journal I kept back then. Two years of mental digestion later, I can see glaring hints of the person I was becoming and the journey I was preparing to take.
GRANADA, SPAIN | 31 DECEMBER 2014
We are roaming through Granada on the final day of the year to do all of our vital tasks before leaving in the morning. That is to say: tracking down all of the best hole in the wall vermouth bars in the city. I have a list of tips from Zach Zamboni (Anthony Bourdain’s former camera man who left his job after filming in Granada to live there permanently) which a use as a map on our quest. We had sustained ourselves for three days on the free tapas that come with a drink order at any bar in the city. This day was no different as we bounced from bar to bar and filled ourselves on bacalhau, sardines, and snails. By the late afternoon, we find ourselves wandering down a back alley to 4th or 5th place on our list. We take prime seats at the bar while two groups of older men sit further down the bar and a husband and wife serve drinks and their accompanying plates from behind the bar. We order two glasses of the house vermouth, which come with two plates of omelette. Matt, a childhood friend and my companion on the trip, turns to me and raises his glass.
“Cheers to the end of 2014, buddy”
“Salud”, I answer.
“What’s our plan to ring in the New Year tonight?”
“Good question. Wander?”
Each unplanned day of our two week trip in Spain had led us to the right place by night. After starting the trip in Barcelona, various trains had taken us through Valencia, Madrid, Cordoba, and now Granada. I had grand expectations for the city of “free tapas”. And now, enjoying our last few hours of time in the city, I have a whole new city to call “one of my favorites”
We both agree that tonight’s plan would be no different from any other’s. And sure enough, after a few more stops at Zamboni’s favorite spots, the day onice again leads us to the right place. Belly’s full of vermouth, we come to one of the city’s main plazas with about a half hour to go before midnight. We start to scour the stores surrounding the plaza for grapes only to find that the shelves had already been cleaned out. We had been looking forward to participating in the Spanish tradition of stuffing twelve grapes into our mouths as the clock rang in the new year but we are out of supplies. But then I see our solution. I raise two mini bottles of wine and show them to Matt.
“How many grapes do you think are inside of these?”
“Oh at least a dozen,” Matt answers, grabbing some small bills from his pocket.
We work our way out of the store and into the center of the crowd in Plaza del Carmen. The bell signals the end of another year as we gulp our wine and the rest chomp at their grapes. Fireworks explode, couples kiss, and I start to think about my future. What will the coming year hold for me and what will we be doing for the last five days of our trip when we get to Morocco?
Suddenly, as if to remind me where I am, the plaza erupts in color and brit-pop as a Beatles cover band appears on a stage to play for the next ninety minutes. My already worn in soles dance one of their final dances that night as both Matt and I belt out lyrics in our native tongue.
MALAGA, SPAIN | 1 JANUARY 2015
It’s some hour in the late morning, but neither of us have the strength or neural capacity to check our watches. Seagulls lazily drift overhead in the salty air. We had just gotten off our train and are walking into the sleepy beach town of Malaga. (It might not be fair to call Malaga a “sleepy” beach town. But for the single morning that we are here, time seems to warp to a slower pace as we suffer the aftereffects of our previous day.) We had decided we would come here for a single night to use the city as our launching off point to travel to Fes the following day.
After checking into our hostel and stashing our bags in the rooms, we go out on a mission to find lunch, something fried. We find a small restaurant near Picasso’s birth-house and order their specialty: fried seafood platter. While we wait, we talk about life and curse ourselves and Mr. Zamboni for recommending so many fine vermouth joints on our last night in Granada. After a short while, our seafood arrives…. oops. It’s massive. We try a bit of everything as we start to get our brains back online. We finish half, and then give the rest to some homeless men in the plaza. We walk back to our hostel.
“Hey Matt, we’re going to Morocco tomorrow”, I say, suddenly realizing how little we had prepared for this.
“Yeah wow. I wonder what we’re gonna find in Fes…”
“I really don’t know, and I’m jazzed about that.”
“Me too. What time do you think we should leave or the bus?”
“Mmmm, good point. Let’s at least make a plan for that.”
In our hostel we spread our the maps, run some searches on our phones, and start plotting out our itinerary for the following day. Our aim is to reach the city of Fes before the sun goes down. There will be a bus from here to Algeciras, another bus to Tarifa, a ferry to Tanigers, and a train to Fes. We do some math. If we leave the hostel at 4 AM, we could make it to Fes by 8 PM (that is, if everything goes according to plan), if we miss a connection, we are looking at more like a post-midnight arrival. As a novice vagabond, some nerves are bubbling at the prospect of arriving on a brand new continent late at night with no orientation of the city. But we decide everything should work; it always had before. We decide to cool the nerves with a last night out in Spain, a country that we fell for so easily. A nearby restaurant serves us a huge plate of freshly shaved Iberian ham and some glasses of wine at the bar as we ogle and speculate on the back story of a wizened old Portuguese man sitting a few seats down from us.
MALAGA, SPAIN | 2 JANUARY 2015
In the morning, we set out for the bus station, as planned at 4 AM. Upon arriving at the station, we find all gates and windows to be locked. Well. This was going to be a barrier for buying our tickets, and so much for sticking to the schedule. My half-asleep brain is deflated. We check all around the station and just as we start discussing alternative plans, we find an open back gate that leads to a lot with a single empty bus. A sleeping driver wakes up as we knock on the door. “Algeciras?” he asks. Ah ha, back on schedule. We buy our tickets on board and nap through our whole bus ride. In Algeciras, we realize we had arrived about 40 minutes earlier than scheduled; he may have been hard to find but our sleepy bus driver did well. We realize it will now be a bit of a wait until the next scheduled bus. A nearby taxi driver asks us where we were going. I half-shun them off (we’re doing this trip on the cheap), but reluctantly admit that we are trying to get to Tarifa for the ferry. She offers us a ride straight there for only a few Euros more than the cost of two bus tickets, and we could leave now. We hop in and cruise right to the ferry port purchased our tickets, purchase our tickets, and board a much earlier boat than we thought we could make.
So we are finally aboard and crossing the straight between Europe and the northern tip of Morocco, the sun just rising to our left as we head South.
“Here we go, here we go.” I’m suddenly giddy with anticipation. The feeling of diving into a new place with barely any expectations to cloud the experience. Matt pokes me out of my daydream.
“Hey, how much Arabic do you know?”
“Oh… like. None.”
“Do you know the exchange rate?”
“Mmmm, nope… yeah on second thought I guess we could do a little bit of preparation”
For the next hour we use the back page of a Morrocan guidebook to learn some basic phrases in Arabic and we laugh. It’s only 9AM and we are almost at port in Tangiers. A young British boy nearby spills his hot chocolate all over the ground.
I look to the back of the boat, towards Spain, where we came from, and think about all of our good memories. But I also try to look beyond the memories and remember what I had thought before we went, when Granada was just another place I had seen on TV and read about in a book. But I can’t remeber. So I look forward, towards Africa and towards my unknown. I have no idea what Fes holds for us. I have no idea what the year holds for me. But for me that’s the most exciting part of the trip. So I keep looking forward, to the future and to the front of the boat.