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"Like a Ghost Into a Fog"
"October 31, 2000"

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Plaza de EspaŮa
Sevilla, Spain (27Oct00)

My arrival in Europe caught me quite off guard. With all the travel I've done over the past few years, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from traveling in Europe; Western culture was Western culture. It would be like th US, except there would be a bunch of castles, all the people would be smoking and stylishly dressed, the food would actually be good, and the McDonalds would serve the "Royale with Cheese" instead of the Quarter Pounder. I had always forgone the tameness and sameness of travel in Europe for the exotic and unpredictable Third World. But I figured that I should at least give Europe a look.

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Beware of working stiffs
London, England (17Oct00)

Being of British descent, I have always felt a special connection to England. I even had the papers to prove it; Much of the last six months of my four month stopover in San Francisco was dedicated to acquiring a British passport, which dramatically arrived only hours before my departure. I had to make sure I was home the entire last day, lest they deliver it in my absence. They did, however, attempt to deliver it in the five minutes I was in the shower, and it took serious groveling on the phone to FedEx to have them come back.

It was this very pedigree which made me feel so out of place the moment I arrived in London. A 6'4" man with pasty white skin and blond hair is the center of attention in a tiny village in the Andes, but in London, I just disappeared into the buzzing mass of pale white. I was an outsider, yet I was indistinguishable in the middle of it. I was invisible.

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Tower Bridge
London, England (17Oct00)

My new found invisibility allowed me to move freely without making even the slightest ripple. Under trademark wet, grey skies, I took in the token sights of Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, and the British Tate Museum. At the rate I was shedding pounds in my whirlwind tour, it was fortunate that my British stopover was only a day. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Madrid, Spain.

Once in Spain, I felt a sudden sense of relief. Being back in a Spanish speaking country brought back a feeling of adventurousness, yet I still maintained a degree of invisibility. With nowhere in particular I had to be, I just stopped and relaxed. It was probably the first time ever in my travels when I didn't have something to focus on. I wasn't constantly being stared at by the locals, I wasn't thinking of how many kilometers I had to ride that day, I didn't have a distant deadline to structure my time around. It was strange; I could spend a month just sitting in cafes thinking and drinking coffee if I wanted to.

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Hello Madrid!
Madrid, Spain (19Oct00)

I decided that a couple days sounded like a more reasonable time to sit and think. Too much time with a caffeine fueled hyperactive mind is a dangerous thing. My time alone didn't last long. I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner at a restaurant recommended by a friend. As I was sipping my complimentary glass of champagne, a woman at the next table, not realizing that the champagne was included with the meal, asked "What are you celebrating?" I told her that I wasn't really celebrating anything, but soon we were talking. "No one eats alone in Spain. It is very sad," she said. To guarantee that the tragedy would not be repeated, she invited me to join her and a group of friends for dinner the next night.

So, barely three days into my European jaunt, I found myself thrust into the heart of Spanish social life. Spanish life seems to be anchored on four pillars: eating, drinking, smoking, and talking. My lack of smoking still left me well anchored, and I made up for the omission by overcompensating with the others.

Spanish nightlife begins with dinner, usually about 10pm, with the more people the better. There were seven of us, and we quite quickly did serious damage to various plates of olives, sliced meat, fish, and far too many bottles of wine. With the evening off to a good start, we then drank and talked our way from one hot spot of Madrid nightlife to the next, ultimately ending up in a club called "El Guillotine." By the end of the evening, at around 5am, we had solved all the world's problems, contemplated the meaning of life, and discussed culture from around the world. Alas, by the morning, all the great insight had faded, only to be replaced by a mind-numbing hangover. Welcome to Spain.

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The "Casas Colgadas"
Cuenca, Spain (22Oct00)

I decided that I had been in Madrid long enough,and it was time to get moving. I planned a frantic sidetrip to a small village outside Madrid, called Cuenca. Cuenca is known for its famous "casas colgadas," houses built on the teetering edge of a mountain, their terraces spilling down into the canyon. Even under black skies, it was a beautiful sight; too beautiful perhaps, as I managed to sprain my ankle, looking back at the view instead of on the path in front of me.

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Oops...
Cuenca, Spain (22Oct00)

My frantic pace once again slowed, I hobbled back to the bus station and headed back to Madrid. When I was in Madrid previously, I had met a group of elder hostal travelers, and they invited met to join them for a bullfight later in the week. Having never seen one, and having just missed seeing one in Mexico City, I accepted. So once back from Cuenca, I went straight to the bull ring. I was told which section thwey would be sitting in, but it wasnīt clear when it came time to buy a ticket, so I bought one right up front, assuming that I could go and visit them in the cheaper seats without a problem. I went straight to their section, and watched the first half of one fight talking with them. The group was from many places; Canada, America, Europe, and their great spirits gave me hope that you can still travel the world in the autumn of life.

Since I had paid quite a lot (4000 pts = US$20) from prime seats, I decided to make my way down to my seat. But apparently, you can't reenter the arena during a fight, so I had to wait and watch on TV until the first bull was dead. There would be five more.

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OlŤ
Madrid, Spain (22Oct00)

Once the bull had been killed, I made my way up front. There, not 15 feet from my seat, lay the tortured, bloody body of the dead bull from the previous fight. Blood stained the once crisp white of the bull's nose and mouth. The bull was roped up, tied to a horse, and dragged out of the ring in preparation for the next fight

Each fight had the exact same protocol. First, the bull, healthy and fresh, would be released into the ring. Junior bullfighters would step out from behind barracades waving bright pink capes, inducing the bull to charge. Just as he approached one bullfighter, another would appear off in the distance, and the bull would change course and charge again. After a few times around the ring, horns would blow, and men on horseback would enter. They carried with them spiked poles, and it was their job to stab the bull in the back, weakening and angering him. In order to prevent the horse from doing the obvious thing and running from the charging bull, it was blindfolded. Fortunately, modern times have benefitted the horses, and they are now covered with padding to dull the bull's fierce blow. With blood gushing from the bull's back, the horses would head out with the next blast of horns, and two men would enter. Each would have two barbed sticks in their hands, and in turn, each would attempt to jam the barbs into the back of the bull as he charged. They would then repeat this, resulting in up to eight poles stuck in the bull's back. By this point, the bull would be angry yet weakened, and would run around the ring looking like a bleeding bagpipe, sticks bouncing to and fro.

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Bullfight
Madrid, Spain (22Oct00)

With the final horn blast, the matatador would enter. Dressed in elaborate guilded attire and wielding a red cape and sword, the matador got to work. He would go into the center of the ring and tease the bull, trying to get him to charge as closely as possible without inflicting any injuries. There was obviously a fine art to it, and I'm sure a refined spectator would know a good move from a bad one, but it seemed that the smoother and more daring the move, the better the applause. After playing with the bull for about ten minutes, the matador would switch swords, and then focus on the kill. A clean kill would drop the bull to the ground in a second, but that seemed to be the exception. On several occasions, the matador would stab clumbsily, like a nurse hunting for a buried vein. After each tab, the partially buried sword would have to be extracted. When the matador got into trouble, the junior bullfighters would quickly appear on the scene and distract the bull while the matador regained composure.

After six bull fights, the tally was grim: matadors 6, bulls 0. I headed back to my hotel. After spending my first week under the continual threat of rain, I decided that moving south was my best bet for sun, so I set a course for the state of Andalucia.

Andacucia is a remarkable place. The southernmost part of Spain, it is warm, friendly, and rich with history and culture. Once under Moorish control, it has some of the most impressive mosques anywhere.

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The Mezquita
CÚrdoba, Spain (24Oct00)

CÚrdoba is the site of one of these mosques, the Mezquita, which is centered in the Juderža, the ancient Jewish quarter. CÚrdoba is a popular tourist stop, and the narrow streets would often be clogged with packs of tour groups. CÚrdoba is also home to one of the finest youth hostels in Spain. While it is questionable whether I qualified as a youth anymore, youth hostals are a great place to meet other travelers, and that's exactly what happened.

From the moment I arrived in CÚrdoba to the moment I left, I was always spending time with some other traveler. I met Soren from Denmark, Cheryl from Canada, and Nikolas from France. My roommates were Russian-American and Guatemalan.

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The Mezquita again
CÚrdoba, Spain (24Oct00)

Hostels usually have a broad range of people staying in them, from 18 yr olds on their first trip away from home, to people who have been on the road for ten years with no end in sight. All share a love of travel, and it's always easy to find someone who wants to spend a night on the town. We spent our evenings drinking, eating, and dancing. I soon realized that I was no longer invisible; I was fully plugged into the traveler network.

The pace only increased once I hit Sevilla. Sevilla is not only home to Flamenco and bullfighting, but it also had the most active nightlife I've ever seen. Every night, from about 10 until about 4am, the plazas would be entirely overrun with thousands of young people, all seemingly aged 16-23. They would all drink whisky and coke, all carried in identical plastic bags and served in identical plastic cups. On my second night there, I and a man named Chris from South Africa decided to check out this mysterious phenomena.

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CÚrdoba at night
CÚrdoba, Spain (24Oct00)

We walked through numerous tranquil streets and empty plazas until we hit THE plaza, which must have had a thousand people in it. As we walked through the crowd, one group stopped us and offered us drinks - the proverbial whisky and coke. A while later, a homeless man came by, and soon he too was partaking in the festivities. When we ran out of drinks, Chris and I went to buy more. It turns out that all the local bars sell "party kits"; a bag with a bottle of whisky, a bottle of coke, a big bag of ice, and cups, all ready to go. The whole lot cost 2000 pts (about US$10.) In America, if all the youth in town went out on the streets drinking until 6am, it would be a disaster, but in Spain, it somehow works. Even the old folks were out in the bars 'till the wee hours, drinking, talking, and eating tapas.

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Inside the Mezquita
CÚrdoba, Spain (25Oct00)

Staying out until 6 made sleeping in a necessity, but the woman who ran the hotel didn't see it that way. At 7 in the morning, I heard tapping on the window, and it took several minutes of confused replies until I finally realized that she was knocking on the next room over. It was hard to tell; the rooms were so tiny that my head and my feet both touched the walls at the same time. She was balling out the person next door, who had apparently brought someone back with him, but he had only paid for a single. The woman didn't win many hospitality points with me either, tellilng me to make sure I took a short shower once I she found out that I was checking out. The rooms more than made up for the lack of hostility, however, opening onto a beautifully warm, sun drenched terrace.

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The Alcazŗr
Sevilla, Spain (25Oct00)

After a more mellow evening with yet another traveler, Caleb, a fellow photographer from Portland, I decided to follow up on an offer I had received from Cheryl, back in CÚrdoba, to drop by and stay with her and her friend Adrian.

Adrian, a researcher from England, was living in Sevilla for a few months to do research on trade between England and the New World. Unbeknownst to him, Cheryl invited me to stay, and he was a most gracious host. when I arrived, he, Cheryl, and another stray traveler Cheryl had invited named Kylie were getting ready to do a day trip to a town called Ronda. I joined in.

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The Tower of Gold
Sevilla, Spain (26Oct00)

Adrian not only chauffered us in a rental car, but he also served as tour guide. There is no better guide to have than someone who has dedicated his professional life to the study of history. He knew all the details of past rulers, old trade routes, and numerous colonial atrocities. It was great to have all the history as we enjoyed the sights.

To get to Ronda, we had to drive over the Sierras, a small but picturesque mountain range. Along the way, the small, whitewashed villages of Zahara, Grazalema, and Ubrique dotted the hillsides. With a late start and frequent stops, we didn't actually reach Ronda until well after dark, but what a sight it was. Running through the center of town was a deep gorge, so deep that even when floodlit at night, it was barely possible to make out the bottom. One of the three bridges, the one built during Christian times, was an impressive piece of work, with monsterous stone columns that disappeared into the dark depths of the gorge.

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The Giralda
Sevilla, Spain (28Oct00)

The next day our sightseeing tour went to Cŗdiz, a southern port, by train. We actually ended up stuck most of the day in Puerto de Santa Maria, waiting for a boat to Cŗdiz, but it didnīt really matter. Wherever we went, we spent most of our time in bars eating, drinking, and talking, and seeing as Puerto de Santa Maria was the center of sherry production, it gave us an opportunity to sample the local wares.

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The bridge in Ronda
Ronda, Spain (29Oct00)

I ended up spending another day back in Sevilla, doing laundry and hanging out with my new friends. My lack of a schedule and nice weather gave me no incentive to get moving. Adrian's apartment overlooked an old convent, and the lines for drying clothes were on the roof. At some point during the day, one of my shirts blew off the roof and drifted down into a tree in the courtyard of the convent. I had to go knock on the door and ask one of the sweet old nuns to go and retrieve it from a tree for me.

I really enjoyed the time I spent with Cheryl, Adrian, and Kylie; it was great to have some deep, long conversations to offset the wild social scene of Spain. Soon, however, it was time to move again. I had my sights set on a new destination; Portugal.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.