Adventuring in Iberia

After four weeks in Sevilla, my weekdays have settled into somewhat of a routine. I wake up early, make coffee and drink it on the balcony if there’s time, and take the metro to and from school. Most days my afternoons are mine to do with as I please; sometimes that’s tapas with friends and sometimes it’s a coffee shop by myself. This week I walked along the river and came to a park full of people relaxing: some playing music, some slacklining, some splitting big glass bottles of Cruzcampo beer into small plastic cups. I continued past the park and found myself at the bus station.

kerouacI like bus stations. I like train stations. I like airports. They stand at the threshold of something, somewhere in between coming and going. They’re the link between wherever you are and the rest of the world. And wherever I am, I always end up restless. Don’t get me wrong; I love Sevilla. I love the cobblestones and the wine and the orange trees. But I crave the act of travel itself, not just the destination. This morning, on a train to Málaga, I was reading On the Road. “We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.” The “purity of the road” that Kerouac describes so perfectly has been a constant for me no matter what else is going on. Here, thousands of miles from home, one of my deepest comforts is travel itself.
Last Sunday, I boarded a bus full of international students and we took off for Portugal with a coordinator from the group We Love Spain. I was in a bad mood about the most mundane of first world problems. I spilled water on my MacBook and it wouldn’t charge. An ATM swallowed the most travel-friendly of my three bank cards. My iMessages were only working through my Apple ID, not my actual phone number. Gradually, coffee and conversation made me less sullen. By the time we crossed the line into Portugal (no checkpoint, no border control, just Schengen area freedom) I was happy. We stopped at a gas station and I bought chocolate milk, unabashedly addressing the cashier in Spanish, not even realizing that I wasn’t in Spain anymore. But when we got to Praia de São Rafael, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

sao rafael.jpg

The view from the cliffs

Cliffs the colors of stratified sand framed a narrow cove of water like turquoise glass. Rocks jutted up from the clear water forming arches and monuments. A breeze brushed over us and the water looked deceptively warm. I tucked my towel and backpack in the crevice of a tall rock and took off for the water. It was the Atlantic, but felt colder than it had three weeks before at the North Carolina Outer Banks. After getting over the initial shock of diving under, I took off swimming for the caves that were supposedly hidden within the protruding rocks. Sure enough, half in and half out of the water was a place to go inside. The rocks were rough on our hands and feet as we climbed from chamber to chamber within the caves. Soon, six of us crowded onto the tiny “beach” within the furthest cave. We were inside what felt like a tower, with sand under our feet and little waves bubbling up from an opening in the rock just below the one that we climbed in. We stood at the bottom of a stone cylinder with no ceiling, looking up at the rich sky above us, and we tried to climb the rock walls that encircled us. It was fun but no one made it to the top.

Instead, we went back out and began climbing the rocks from the outside. I’ve never liked to accept help when I’m trying to climb up something. It’s not about pride; when I was young I learned that if you want to get yourself down safely, you should get yourself up on your own. But my arms just weren’t quite long enough to reach the handhold that would let me get up to the ledge I wanted to jump from. So I accepted some help up, reasoning that since I was going to jump down anyway, it wouldn’t be any less safe. To get to a good jumping spot, one that went straight down to deep water with no rocks, I lay down on my back and slid beneath an overhang. Lying on my back, I had a few inches of rock to my left, and then the drop down to the water, and a few inches of space above me, then more rock. But the jump made the scratches on my back and arms and the cuts on my knees and elbows worth it.

srafaelAfter a nap, I explored the cliffs above the beach and again had my breath taken away by how rugged and beautiful it was. I’m happy to have pictures, but they don’t come close to doing this trip justice.  Even more than than the cool clarity of the water, the warmth of the sun, and the softness of the sand, I’m grateful for the vitality of the adrenaline from climbing and jumping, and for the rejuvination this trip provided me.  It was staggering, beautiful, and great in a way that I don’t think a man-made structure will ever be. Being here made me feel both very small and very whole.

Another week of routine went by. Coffee, metro, school, replacement bank card on its way, laptop charges only when it feels like it. More exploring within the city. I’ve now found two bookstores: One small coffee shop whose walls are lined with bookshelves filled with used books for sale, and one big boxy store offering books, electronics, office supplies and more. The former introduced me to a mystery novel translated to English from Icelandic, the latter to Jack Kerouac. I was happy with my books and happy to be finding more unknowns here in Sevilla. But by the end of the week I needed a window seat on a bus. I needed mountains and gorges and the liminal moments in between here and there.

This morning I woke up several hours before dawn. (That sounds dramatic. Dawn happens late here. I woke up at six, which is early, but not really that early.) I took the metro to the stop nearest the train station, walked about fifteen minutes, printed my ticket, and made my way to a bus bound for El Chorro. I settled into my seat, put in my headphones, opened my book, and we were off. It was somewhere between eight and nine before dawn actually happened. I was wide awake and excited. Somewhere along the way, the flat ground turned to steep mountains. The train drove through a ravine and I saw a walkway suspended on the side of the mountains. I knew in a few hours I would be on that walkway. I smiled and underlined particularly moving lines in my book. I felt vaguely like what I was doing had something to do with what Sal Paradise was doing. I ignored that I was carrying a hundred euros cash, a debit card, two passports, two phones, a driver’s license, hand sanitizer, protein bars and an outlet adapter in order to let myself feel that way.

At the El Chorro station, I had time for a cafe con leche before I got on the bus to Ardales, where I would begin the Caminito del Rey, a hike I had been dying to do since I first found out about it. Apparently it used to be incredibly dangerous. People died doing it. I think now they might be overcompensating just a bit; the path is refurbished with wooden walkways, steel wire fences, and videocameras. I’m a big fan of videocameras in places like metros and parking garages but in this case they just creeped me out. They made us wear hard hats.

caminito2The walk itself was stunning. On one side, the mountain rose straight up and down. On the other, water smooth and bright like polished jade snaked through the gorge. It was an easy trek, 7 or 8 km and pretty flat. As I took it in I imagined what it must have been like before the 21st century safety standards were implemented. I thought about what those mountains would be like for serious climbers. I thought about myself and my cousin hiking the Inca Trail ten months ago, which was neither as dangerous as this would have been pre-renovations, nor nearly as safe as it is now. I wished this were slightly less accessible, so I could have felt like I earned the views and the altitude.

When I got to the end of the Caminito, I was back close to the El Chorro train station. I went to a nearby restaurant and sat on a terrace that looked out over the river. I bought the most expensive meal of my whole trip so far: cured pork wrapped in pork loin and a glass of wine. I couldn’t even eat half of the pork but I did drink all the wine. I read my book as I waited and started thinking about what trip would come next. By checking this adventure off my bucket list I had reminded myself to find more mountains to climb. Now I’m back at my apartment, getting ready to curl up in bed and not set an alarm for tomorrow morning. Maybe between coffee, books, food and wine this weekend I’ll figure out where I’m going to go next.




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