I received a mysterious note in my Couchsurfing inbox that read:
“Take the bus to Orgiva, walk two miles to Los Tablones, go down to the riverbank and follow it until you arrive at an old tour bus. My camper is behind it. An English girl named Lucy is staying there and will let you pitch your tent. Bring beer.”
I had inquired in a group about low-to-zero-budget stays in the Spanish countryside, and this was the only bit of information that ever made it back to me.
I had been hitchhiking from city to city for nearly three months, with little rest or time to reflect. Perpetual motion is a compounding coping mechanism; It stacks higher and higher on itself until you just have to stop, even if you don’t want to. I had just had my heart broken on the banks of the Arno in Florence. My short-term partner, who I met at the Vatican only a week earlier, wanted to keep moving south but I wanted to stay a day to see the Uffizi gallery. I couldn’t just “pass through” Florence, the thought seemed impossible. In retrospect, it was a menial disagreement but we solo travelers were both strongly attached to our own freedoms, so she left on a train and I saw Michael Angelo’s David, and I still don’t know if it was worth it.
The next day, tired of Italy and its melodrama, I found a boat and crossed the Mediterranean to Barcelona. The ship left from a port city called Livorno, and mostly served as a ferry for commerce purposes between Europe and Morocco. I convinced a driver to add me as a “guest” on his eighteen-wheeler and boarded the ship in the middle of the night from the belly of a sprawling industrial yard. For two days, I watched the horizon change from blue to yellow to black, and then back again. I slept on the deck because I could sense that I was a spectacle to a relatively conservative population of passengers and I was too broke to purchase a cabin ticket. I had spent the last quarter-year enjoying anonymity and moving through places as a ghost, and the attention was too much to bear. The ocean winds tangled my curls and covered my body in a thin layer of salt. I remember feeling feral and sun-washed; cleansed of the repetitious thoughts of sudden loneliness.
At the crossing’s half-way point, I befriended a man from Tangier who invited me to lunch in his room. The cabin was miniature, and I sat on the ground with him and his two bunkmates and ate khobz while listening to Arabic music through a tinny phone speaker. I invited him to have a beer out of reciprocal hospitality. He reminded me that he was Muslim but encouraged me to have a drink if I wanted one, so the two of us sat at a deck table; me, nursing a Stella Artois, and him, amused by the necks craning to observe us. Much like how I had left Italy, I arrived in Spain in the middle of the night to a dark cargo-stacked port. Part of me wanted to stay on the ship and go straight to Morocco but, as I was operating solely on intuition and nothing else, I knew that I was meant to traverse by land for now.
I tell you, what a relief to be able to speak the language. My tongue quickly contorted back into the familiar shapes of Spanish. I felt bolder, quicker, and smarter. The endeavor of navigating a place without fluency is, in many ways, infantilizing, and being able to pick up on passing conversations lent an immediate bounce to my strides. I took a bed at a budget backpacker’s hostel, bought weed from a private club, and spent the next four days licking my wounds by way of museums and architecture. I ate up Gaudi’s physical realm and found it both incredible and tickling that he had been allowed to carve his mind’s desire into the foundation of such a prestigious city. Imagine someone in Boston approaching their neighborhood association with the blueprints of Casa Batlló, ha! But nothing of particular note happened in Barcelona. I did go for an ill-advised November swim in the cold Mediterranean one night. I also avoided La Rambla like the plague and cried in front of Picasso’s earliest self-portrait.
Shortly after I had arrived in Spain, I started making my way down the coast via hitchhiking. At the time, a leftist grassroots party named Podemos was lifting off into political fame. I often encountered their organizers in outskirt working-class towns and stopped to listen to their sermons about how neoliberalism was driving inequity. Through them, I learned the leftist history of their country, and, by proxy, my own.
Making my way to this mysterious camper in the foothills of the Andalusian mountains often felt like a pilgrimage. Each step was drenched with indecipherable purpose that felt profound but, at the same time, insignificant in the wake of all other steps. I grabbed a ride from a gas station outside of Valencia with a middle-aged gay man named Jose who was a touring performer. He sang and danced at big, tacky functions in rural towns, but, according to him, work was slow those days because of the receding economy. We drove for hours and hours through dusty farmlands, and grabbed hot dogs at isolated gas stations. It reminded me of parts of the US I had never been to, like the Midwest or California. I hadn’t thought about the US in a long time.
Jose dropped me off in a placed called Córdoba. Once again, I arrived at night, which is how it just seemed to be going that month. Shot after shot in the dark. Even in my own city, walking at a time when most people are inside is a strange and alienating journey. It’s especially so in a foreign place. I moved from new town to old town and watched the streets change from wide paved arteries and into cobblestone veins. The glass multi-story buildings shrunk into carved stucco abodes, decorated with intricate trims and doors. I sensed that this was a city of artists and makers. It was in the air, the iron, the planters, and the road signs. I could tell because it made me want to stop where I was standing and create something, too.
I found a women-owned hostel near the walls of the mosque. It had a courtyard inside filled with flora, red tiles, and murals. The owners greeted me warmly, and showed me to a dorm room that was called “Frida.” The kitchen was modest and clean. It was low season, and I enjoyed the space and quiet that the lack of tourists afforded me. In the the late morning, I explored Cordoba over consecutive shots of espresso, and it quickly became one of my favorite places in the world. A dreamy haze hung over the watermill, and the river, and the elegant Moorish houses– I can still retreat to those pastel hours of meandering afternoons when I desire.
One day, a man with a camera arrived at the hostel. Luis was a photojournalist from Cuba who had been traversing Europe for a state publication. He wore an army green Castro cap and loose button up, and consistently lamented the outdated technology of his DSLR. We hit it off immediately, sharing a love of photography, hitchhiking and communism. One night we bar-hopped, him with a case of Cuban cigars and me with my guitar. The charm of our bearings and our US-Cuban relations got us free tapas, steak, and cañas on more than one occasion. We made out, he left in the morning for Madrid, and I continued south. Some time after Fidel died, Luis was exiled from Cuba for publishing a piece critical of the new regimes capitalistic interests and reached out to me for help. I gave him the contact of a friend in Peru, but he never made it there. I hope he is okay.
The next stop was Granada. I couchsurfed with an art student and slept on a floor mattress in her modest university apartment for a night. She brought me to a Woody Allen movie screening in the dimly-lit cavern of a temporarily closed music venue. Completely enveloped in existential exhaustion, I fell asleep in a wooden booth and had to be woken up when the film was over. It was a bit embarrassing.
My time in Granada was brief. I was yearning for the countryside and couldn’t think of anything else. I longed to unfurl my tent and sleeping bag and read books into the night without worrying about bothering anyone. In the morning, I read the instructions again.
“Take the bus to Orgiva.”
It never occurred to me to ask the person who wrote it for more details. After traveling for so long, you tend to develop keen senses for decision-making. Sometimes I felt clairvoyant. I could look at a person, a place, or, in this case, a note, and see its motivations. With no impetus beyond the whims of my own mind, I had developed an indescribable method of choosing where to go and what to do. These actions just came as feelings; I’d watch them approach on a conveyer belt and either pick them up or let them pass. The virtual note was magnetic, and so I boarded a bus bound for the mountain village of Orgiva at golden hour. I didn’t understand what sort of surreal sinkhole I was barreling towards.