21 …. TWENTYONE

SPAIN

400,000 years ago Homo erectus learned to control fire.  An incredible feat if you are able to consider the place fire held in the lives of these early hominids.  Danger, destruction, decimation of their food and resources.  Somehow our early human ancestors were able to set their fear aside in order to get close enough to examine its behavior, its potential.  Soon they learned that by using the light fire provided they were able to free themselves from a schedule dictated by sunlight.  They were able to protect themselves from various biting insects and dangerous mammals more effectively and  they were able to utilize the culinary landscape to a greater degree, rendering many toxic plants edible and benefiting from more of the nutritious value available in the meats they consumed.   It is through thousands of years of relating to and negotiating with fire that we have forged a dualistic understanding; fire as protector and provider on one side and fire as weapon and destroyer on the other.  Throughout the world fire is featured prominently in ritualistic ceremony and celebration while simultaneously used to obliterate entire cities and torture non-believers.   Although one of our very first tools it still ignites our divine imagination as well as our instinctual fears.

I watched apprehensively as the machine gobbled up my last five Euros and I boarded the shuttle bus back to Porto.  The last three hours had been spent with the DHL staff attempting to locate my package until finally driving me out to an enormous warehouse to retrieve it personally.  The small box now safely on my lap, I gripped it tightly and tried to breathe normally; I had nothing left except for a three night hotel bill and a growling stomach.  I was so far inside my mind that the scenery outside the window seemed like an Impressionist painting, colors softly blurring together as I battled “worst case scenarios”.

Finally standing in front of the ATM downtown Porto I slid the card through the reader and entered my PIN number.  A few electronic clicks and a whirr had never caused such a sense of profound relief in all my life, the gun-metal grey door slid open and there before me was cash, was freedom and security, was the rest of my journey beginning.  Immediately I returned to the hotel.  It was already evening and the landlady was in her dingy nightgown doing laundry, the filtered sunlight creeping back up the walls of the inner courtyard.  I paid her, packed my bags and went directly to the train station and boarded  the next train to Lisbon, hoping never to see Porto again.

Arriving in Lisbon late that evening, I discovered that the overnight train to Madrid was leaving in a couple of hours and there were only “hard seats” available.  Without much thought I purchased a ticket and  sat down in the lobby to wait for the boarding announcement.  It had been a long day and the adrenaline was starting to give way to the fatigue when I was finally able to jostle my way to the last train car and find a seat.  It was instantly clear what the teller was trying to explain when I inquired about the term, the seats were nothing but “hard”- moulded plastic with low metal dividers used as armrests.  My next half delirious realization was that I had found myself in a smoking car and it was quickly apparent that my fellow travelers were well stocked and planning to keep a night-long vigil of tobacco and lighters in the small cabin.  Before I could fling myself from the train, give in to exhaustion and splurge on a hotel room for the night, the train started to pull out of the station and into the darkness.I comforted myself with the thoughts that I could sleep through the fluorescent lights and heavy pale blue air and in doing so wrapped a scarf around my face and burrowed into the sharp corner of my seat.   It was only 11 hours after all.

Several hours later, my eyes a striking crimson color I decided to seek refuge in the dining car.  A few minutes later returning after the sad realization that in order to stay in the dining car, you had to actually purchase one of their criminally overpriced snack items…only doubling the regret that I didn’t choose a hotel room that night instead of this hellish Las Vegas vending machine of which I was now a prisoner.  Another few hours of acrobatic positioning and the train seemed to be slowing down for something.  According to my time estimates we should be nearly 5 hours away from Madrid, looking for confirmation would give me a convenient reason to escape to the dining car for at least a few minutes.  Sliding the glass door behind me, I stepped into the cool, fresh air envying the passengers seated comfortably snacking on 10 euro peanuts and 12 euro colas.   Slowly I approached the bar, savoring every moment away from the company of my  “hard seat” companions.  Carefully I asked about the estimate time of our arrival in Madrid, and that’s when I saw it.  The waiter turned to look at me with deep pity, not only the kind of “you-are-swimming-in-a-cloud-of-cigarette-smoke-in-the-worst-cabin-in-the-worst-seat-at-the-end-of-the-packed-train-where-the-overhead-lights-never-shut-off-and-you-cannot-afford-the-peanuts” pity, now it was compounded with “AND your intercom system is broken” kind of pity.

There was a serious wildfire which had consumed the tracks ahead of us and the train had been forced to re-route in order to connect with Madrid.  Our arrival would be delayed at least 8 additional hours.  EIGHT HOURS…  the words rang in my head like my skull was a Tibetan singing bowl and I couldn’t stop the reverberation from circling around and around … EIGHT MORE HOURS.  When I finally recovered from the deep stupor the news had plunged me into I returned, defeated, back to my assigned cabin.  Scanning the train car, I realized there was a door at the end.  As if the universe conspired to give me at least a little glimmer of hope, the door opened slightly and I if I sat in the right position on the floor against the back wall I could get a small breeze and was able to see out the back of the train.  The moon was out and the tracks behind us seemed eerily quiet and peaceful as the stretched further and further away.  A passenger nearby light another cigarette and the control with which he maneuvered the glowing red ember seemed a stark contrast to the raging fire out there somewhere in the night from which we now fled.

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20 …… TWENTY

Portugal

Ferdinand Magellan’s body was never found.  He was born near Porto and completed several naval missions for the Portuguese monarchy.  After falling out of favor with his home country he was hired by the Spanish crown to find a western sea route to the Spice Islands.  By the time his expedition was crossing the Strait of Magellan, as it would later be named in his honor,  they had already endured a sailor’s life for several months.  It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, the impact several tropical islands emerging on the horizon had on their spirits.  Arriving in the Philippines, the crew exchanged gifts with the native leaders and generally enjoying their stay on dry land.  Through an unfortunate series of power plays between the leaders Magellan became embroiled in a battle that cost him his life.  Terribly outnumbered and leading a pointless attack, he was killed in the shallow waters off the shore of an island controlled by chieftain Lapu-Lapu.  So angry were the warriors that they slashed his body to bits and it was never recovered from the surf.  Only one of the original ships from the expedition ever made it back to Spain and in doing so had completed the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe.

I did not envy my brother as he waved to us from the airport terminal – he was returning home, his girlfriend and I were about to travel north.  From Lisbon we took a train to Porto, where we spent the rest of the day negotiating bus fare with several tired station employees.  Peneda Geres, the only national park in Portugal, was a few hours drive along a pine studded two-lane highway.  That evening we checked into a rustic hotel on the edge of a dark, green abyss and we fell asleep that night to the sound of the forest.  In the morning, after consulting our maps, we set out for a trail that led up to a small peak which we imagined to have a beautiful view.  At first the path lead us through a lush landscape – dense emerald roof above us and a wild carpet of Calla Lilies below, we were lost for an hour exploring the undergrowth before continuing onto the main road.  Another hour of hiking and we realized the peak was much further than we had imagined originally.  A BMW with a young couple came gliding up the road behind us and we stuck out our thumbs.  A few minutes later we were enjoying the fresh breeze rolling into the back of the car where we sat lounging on the black leather seats and enjoying the song of the couple as they chatted to each other in Spanish.  The peak came and went , without a word from the young couple.  In fact it seemed as if they had forgotten us completely, we politely confirmed that we were headed to “the peak”.  The couple assured us not to worry and that they would be sure to drop us off at “the peak”.  When we arrived at the Portuguese/Spanish border our slight anxiety turned to panic, we whispered back and forth desperately trying to think of any Spanish word that could clarify the situation.  Finally we decided that it was completely out of control and with some urgency I demanded they stop the car and let us out.  Which they did, leaving us on the side of the highway very far from our hotel and all our resources.  Twenty minutes later we turned to see a flat-bed truck full of laborers coming up the highway behind us and after exchanging an apprehensive glance we stuck our thumbs out for the second time that day.

Not yet fully recovered even by breakfast the next day, we packed up our room and boarded the bus headed back to Porto.  A day or so after my bag was stolen in Seville, I got in touch with my mother and asked her to cancel my debit card and cell phone service.  As she looked into it we quickly discovered that in less than 72 hours $500 worth of long distance telephone calls had been made which now, according to my contract, had to pay.  A new debt card would have to be shipped to me in Portugal – after investigations and some estimates we agreed on sending the package to the Porto.  Which was where I stood as my companion gave me a hug and all the Euros she had left in her pocket before boarding her flight back to the US.

The DHL Office was in a warehouse on a lot nearby the airport and using a few of the 20 Euro I had left I took a shuttle from the terminal.  The office was surprisingly quiet for its enormous size, the man staffing the reception desk was on the phone.  I made eye contact and then sat politely in the waiting area, alone.  After 15 minutes he was still on the phone.  After 30 minutes he was still on the phone and I was starting to get nervous.  The initial waves of dread were beginning to wash over me and I frantically looked around the warehouse for someone who could help me.  There was no one else in the building as far as I could tell.  45 minutes and he was still talking, 55 minutes…  Now I was standing in front of the window, polite was so 55 minutes ago.  After a few minutes of the uncomfortable showdown he hung up the phone and asked me what I needed.  I explained the situation as quickly as I could and gave him my tracking number.  He dialed a few numbers and exchanged a few exasperated words in Portuguese before informing me that the office was now closed and he would be unable to locate my package that day.  Terror, pure terror now rippled through my bloodstream, overtaking the annoyance and anger that I hurtled telepathically towards this man, staring at him blankly.  It was Friday and the DHL office would not be open again until Monday, that meant I had nearly three days and two nights in Porto, alone, with 18 Euros…and I still needed to pay for the shuttle and then the train back into the city.

My plan was to find a hotel where I could pay for my stay when I checked out instead of up front, if I could manage this then I could get through the weekend with enough money to eat.  The first problem I encountered was that in order to check into the nicer hotels, where payment upon departure was quite common, I needed to put a credit card on file.  The second problem was checking into a hostel, wary of hit and run travelers, were dubious of my offer to pay “in a few days”.  As I made my way further and further away from the downtown area I came across a small sign in front of an unpainted door and decided to knock. The receptionist who was also the maid, and the cook, and the concierge, listened carefully as I tried to explain my situation and then studied my drawings and pictograms in all earnest before agreeing to my terms.  The room she arranged for me was towards the back of the building opening onto a service courtyard and the toilet was a proud statue standing alone in one corner of the room, no door or even walls around it.  The room was dirty and the windows did not lock, that night I slept with a chair hooked under the doorknob and a canister of mace gripped tightly under my pillow.  Awake all night, prepared for a siege that never came.  My housing now secured I went to the supermarket.  With my last 12 Euro, apart from the 3 Euro fare I needed to get back out to the DHL office, I bought food.  I had no utensils or ways to cook for the next two days and so I was limited to yogurt, bread, cheese and apples.  Both Saturday and Sunday were spent in the park sitting on a bench, comforted by the sun and writing in my sketch book.

I packed the last of my yogurt and my last apple into a bag and caught the train, it was Monday morning at last.  As I sat on the loading dock, relieved and waiting for DHL to locate my package I noticed a cluster of wild flowers growing against a chain link fence next to the building.  The wind was disturbing them slightly and they twitched back and forth as a result.  They struck me as amazing; these little flowers uncared for, unnoticed, struggling on even in the most dire of conditions without any encouragement or direction.  How easy it would have been for them to fail, as they were growing to make one small movement differently and be destroyed by much stronger forces because of it.  Of course there is no way of knowing if these small flowers understood the great success of their choices.   In this moment it occurred to me that not until you are waist deep with the water rising do you ever really know what your choices will cost you.