Are you traveling alone?

Two weeks ago was Cádiz and Málaga, in Spain. This past weekend was Nürnberg, in Germany. And this weekend, I’m off to Thailand for a “real” vacation. I promised myself someplace warm and sunny, where I could SCUBA dive and do yoga, and somehow that place ended up being Thailand. 

When I mention the trip, everyone wants to know who I’m going with and for how long. I’m going by myself for nine days. 

“By yourself?”

I’m not sure whether it’s my perception or their intonation, but I always hear a bit of shock in the fact that I’m traveling alone. I always think I’m okay with it – like, seriously, what’s the big deal – until someone suggests otherwise. Should I be concerned? What’s wrong with seeing a new place on your own? There will be people there, who I can meet. I always bring a camera and a journal. Lately, I travel with mini-Stephen. That, and most of the people I already know are just a message away. 

Safety? Sure! I’m a grown adult, and I will be careful and conscious, just like I am in places I’ve been before.

I ventured to Denmark for four months and made friends. (I’ll admit that my three days alone in Tromsø, Norway were some of the loneliest I’ve felt.) I’ve explored parts of Hawai’i and Spain on my own. I traveled to Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Petra on my own last August. I’ve spent the last four months living abroad, in a place where I don’t speak the language (still working on that!) Nine days will be comparably a long time by myself, but it’s not a new experience to go someplace foreign by myself.

I guess I get it. Going across the world by yourself isn’t an everyday concept. Most people travel with family or to see friends or something like that. The idea isn’t so jarring to me. I know there will be moments where I’ll wonder what-in-the-world I’ve gotten into. That’s kind of the point. To explore the world. To learn about myself in the process. I hesitate to think that I’ll ever be alone, anyway, because a friendship is usually one conversation away from another human stranger.

I’ve grown fond of academic Brené Brown’s work, and in a recent podcast (coincidentally published when I moved to Germany), she remarks: “I think people are afraid to be alone because they don’t belong to themselves. True belonging is not just about being a part of something, but also having the courage to stand alone. The thing about going into the wilderness and standing alone is those experiences mark your heart. I do find sacred being a part of something, but never at the cost of betraying myself.”

I appreciate her words, and I understand they hold a deeper-than-physical meaning. I will admit to holding fear of being alone for these nine days. I also accept that I want to travel. I want to see the world and to continue understanding my place in it. If the alternative to going alone is not exploring the world or doing it on someone else’s terms, traveling alone is the truest I can be to my desires.

Trading Hallo for Hola

When I moved from Boston to Berlin in October, I set an intention to stay in Berlin for awhile, not to escape for weekends in other cities. I’ve moved enough times that I know the necessity of being grounded in a new home, and with the move being permanent – or at least indefinite – planting my roots matters. In past homes, I liked to escape at least one weekend a month, so I grew antsy sitting still, but the time passed quickly. The commitment graduated into Christmas, when I did return to the US to be with my family, and then I spent New Years in Berlin. Come February, my mental roots feel firmly placed here.

Of course, stability means it’s time for a change of pace. My work arranged a group trip to Spain to experience their carnival in Cádiz and Málaga. About four-dozen co-workers flew to Málaga, then traveled by bus across the rolling landscapes of Andalucia’s southern coast. Our bus poked in and out of view of the coast as we gazed at the countryside, speckled with rocks and white-washed resort towns.

Those of us who arrived in Málaga on Friday night convened around 1 a.m. with the early arrivals in an international karaoke club in the city center. I didn’t see any karaoke personally, but by default, our presence made it an international club.

 We danced, and I met the man I'd like to be when I'm eighty-four years old. His hair wiry, Einstein hair and his thick-rimmed glasses frames suggest nothing of his free flowing and rhythmic spirit. Thanks,  hombre . We danced, and I met the man I’d like to be when I’m eighty-four years old. His hair wiry, Einstein hair and his thick-rimmed glasses frames suggest nothing of his free flowing and rhythmic spirit. Thanks, hombre .

After a very late bed time, we stumbled into breakfast at our hotel. The buffet catered most varieties of food, including the Spanish’s infamous tomato puree and olive oil offered for toast. Simple and delectable. Me gusta lo.

On to Cádiz for the real adventure. Our bus journeyed westward. Some slept. Some read. We all stared out the windows, mesmerized by the sunlight, which doesn’t exist in Berlin’s winter months. When the driver stopped at a roadside shop for a break, we spilled out both doors, resting like crumbs in a crack, not out of fatigue, but merely in gratitude for the opportunity to bask in warm sunlight. As we rolled toward our afternoon lunch and winery tour, Paola and I killed John with our discussion of various pastries and baked goods. I’m sorry the banana wasn’t enough, John, but when I have a chance to talk about new types of cake, I’m committed.

Eventually, we reached our destination: a winery tour at La Gitana in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, north of Cádiz. “Winery” may be a bit too generic, as this region specializes in sherries, and this winery vints primarily manzanilla. Perhaps due to some hunger and difficulty interpreting the presenter’s Spanish accent, distinguishing the beverages names and meanings created significant discussion. Mostly, I could conclude four facts from our tour:

  • El vento, the wind, creates the right conditions for a unique sherry in this region.
  • I like amontillado (from the cask!) Honey wine is also good, though I don’t think that’s what it’s called.
  • The vanenciador uses a vanencia to scoop and pour wine from the barrel into glasses. It’s a nifty device that looks like it requires training but supposedly doesn’t.
  • I like jamón. The other plates – tuna sandwiches and tomato soup, bocadillos de atún y sopa de tomate – filled my stomach, but the Spanish ham is the real money maker slash mouth-waterer. Yum!

From the winery, we walked through town to the coast. With a few glasses of wine in my veins, I found the adrenaline to strip to my underwear and sprint into the ocean. Everyone else looked and laughed, until eventually Michael joined the swim team. We basked on the beach and sipped cold and warm drinks with the locals on the patio of a beachfront café. The afternoon faded into a dusk that felt like it would never end. We aren’t so familiar with sunsets after 5 p.m.

After a stop for some essentials – beer, water, toilet paper – we continued on to our accommodations at “the camping” (as my Spanish colleague called it in English). We were the sole occupants of a small village of bungalows. Each slept 5 people, with running hot water and a small kitchen – the bare essentials for a house, efficiently designed without an inch of wasted space.

We convened next to their kitchen in a large banquet tent, where wine and beer flowed as the tapas incrementally filled our plates and stomaches. Dinner graduated into conversation and dancing in our bungalow neighborhood, and a large group followed the crystal clear sky’s stars and constellations to the beach, where we listened to the waves crash, and eight of us were brave enough to attempt a post-midnight swim. Nature refreshed my spirit and sobered my soul that night.

Each bungalow has its own porch with patio furniture, and the objects told the story of our night when we woke up. My bungalow became the last survivor, with the most chairs and empty bottles. We’ll never know whether the yukelele music softened before the bird’s started chirping.

In spite of the varying amounts of sleep, most of us made it to the banquet tent for desayuno, a classic breakfast of sandwiches, with the option for jamón Serrano, mantequilla (butter), and/or queso (cheese). The Spanish speakers amongst us spoke for the others, letting countless cups of cáfe con leche (coffee with milk) flood the table.

As the tent filled, our plot thickened. We had creatures, like a bird, a dinosaur, a lobster, and a rat, mixed with future-disco-people, a devil, an Indian-Arabian knight, hippies, ballerinas, flamenco dancers… every variety of costume under the sun. My first impression of carnival is that it’s Halloween, where any type of dress can become a costume. The circus brigade boarded our bus into Cádiz. In the thirty-minute ride along the peninsula, I added more characters into our mix, as I became a makeup artist and painted some of my colleague’s faces.

Our first stop in Cádiz was the world’s slowest lunch – no offense, I know it’s Spanish style! – in a beachside restaurant. The tapas came in most varieties, except the Spanish struggle to understand a vegetarian diet. (They served crumbled jamón on the  vegetarians’ tomato soup yesterday.) Luckily, I have a flexible diet, which included a plateful of cake, thanks to the fact that everyone else left the table by the time dessert arrived.

After some time digesting in the sun and shooting group photos on the beach, we meandered along the beach, toward the palatial facade of the old city center at the end of the peninsula. Confused by the crowd flowing in the opposite direction, we were reassured when asking for advice. People were going to see the start of the parade, which would start in an hour and last three hours. We continued on our path, squeezed into and through the village streets, and were spat into the center where beer flowed and floats of identically-costumed Spaniards sang about politics. I guess that’s the specialty that Cádiz offers for its carnival?

After a few hours in the heavy crowds, we returned to walk along the coast and enjoyed dusk and sunset at a beachside bar and restaurant. Tempted by the urgency of the celebration, most of us filtered back into the city streets to watch the parade finish, then followed (er, I danced…) the crowd of people to the “party,” which meant standing in the streets and alleys to drink and eat. Though many of us had never been to carnival, we were surprised to not see much music or a “pulsing” fiesta atmosphere. Still, I see the spirit of the people in their celebration, and I am grateful to have played a part. We returned to the camping at 11 p.m. and enjoyed another night of music and cheers on our bungalow porches.

Monday morning brought the same sequence of sandwiches and broken Spanish, without the costumes and with more sleep deprivation. It’s like “yum!” but without the exclamation point, just “yum.” After breakfast, we boarded a much quieter bus for the return to Málaga, where we had a fantastic sit-down lunch. Some of the fish were grilled on the fire on the beach directly in front of the restaurant. The other fish… tasted just as good 🙂 as did the second plate of flan that I graciously ate for someone else.

With evening flights lined up, tired bodies, and an impending return to Berlin, we again found ourselves lounging in the sand. I walked along the beach, with my barefoot feet rubbing chilly water, feeling both spiritually restored and physically exhausted. I guess that’s what you get when you leave Berlin’s winter for a weekend getaway on the coast of Spain.

Thank You For Calling

I used to be elitist. I refused to download Facebook messenger, and I bookmarked the “secret” URL to check Facebook messages on their mobile webpage. I deleted Snapchat because it felt useless. And for a period of time, despite my being so visually-oriented, I disconnected from Instagram. I could be reached by text message, phone call, or email, and I would respond.

I remain convinced that we have too many ways to contact each other. Too many, because it can be disabling to the point of giving up to decide whether and how to contact someone. Have you felt that fear of thinking of a friend but not knowing when or how to reach them at the “right” moment? Despite the overwhelming selection of contact methods, I shed that attitude.

You can use standard mobile phone call and message features to call me or to text me on my American phone number or my German phone number. You can call or text me on WhatsApp with my American number. You can iMessage me at two phone numbers or via my email address. You can email me through work or personal. You can call or message me on Google Hangouts or Skype. You can contact me via FaceTime Audio or FaceTime Video. You can send me a message on Facebook Messenger. You can even call me with Facebook Messenger, though I think the audio quality is poor. You can send me a chat on Snapchat, and you can call me with audio or video on Snapchat. You can direct message me on Instagram. Or on Twitter. Or you can ring my doorbell.

Wondering how the whole phone thing works for me abroad? Is it going to cost you money to call me? Nope! At the moment, I have two working phones, and all of my messages are routed to one of them. I have an app called T-Mobile Digits installed on my primary iPhone, which uses a German SIM on the O2 network. I also have my American T-Mobile SIM at home in a secondary phone, and it has coverage through the T-Mobile Simple Global plan. While I could get by easily with just one, having the two SIM configuration ensures that calls, texts, Snapchats, emails, and other forms of communication reach me, usually on my primary phone. I’m most likely to answer a phone call to my American phone number when I’m on WiFi, but I can receive and place FaceTime calls at any time, on four different devices.

Contact me wherever, whenever. At this point, I don’t care. The world is (too) connected. If you want to reach me, I want to hear from you. Some friends and family know me to call at weird hours, when you would assume I’m sleeping. (Lately I have a very healthy relationship with sleep, but Berlin also has weird hours of nightlife and I am flexible.) Please don’t assume it’s a bad time. If I’m not available, I simply won’t answer. I’ll respond when I am available. If you are thinking of me or want to hear from me, I want to hear from you, too. And I will thank you for calling.