Sleepless in (approximately 31 km outside of) Seville

When you don’t have much money (I say “you” but of course, I mean “I”), traveling to foreign lands, especially alone, where the language, currency, culture etc is different, is a humbling experience. You stay at the cheapest hotels, hostels or local rooms you can find, where things like WiFi, toilet paper, soap, even a toilet seat, can’t be taken for granted. You don’t typically eat at restaurants (except in parts of Asia where it’s cheap and easy) but instead buy inexpensive, tinned items (sardines and crackers for instance) or fresh portioned food, like ready-made salad, yogurt, fruit and nuts, at grocery stores, that you can consume in your room or as you travel, and won’t weigh you down. When you get an invitation to eat with a local, you take it, which means you’ll be eating things you may have never seen, much less been served, as a meal. If you’re dependent on public transportation, you hang out at bus stations for hours sometimes because it’s a local holiday and the schedule is reduced, and a taxi to cover the 20 miles to your destination would be a splurge you can’t afford. (You have to pick your splurges wisely). You ride share (BlaBlaCar here in Europe, what a great invention) when possible if it’s less expensive or will take you places public transportation won’t, even though it means three adults sharing the backseat of a compact car (you’re one of them) and the guy next to you prattling on for six hours non-stop (thankfully in fast French so you can be forgiven for never so much as uh-huh-ing), which is preferable to being in a car full of strangers who speak your native tongue and like to play the getting-to-know-you game. (The British, much to my relief and appreciation, tend not to fall into that category, refraining from asking intrusive and personal questions when meeting a stranger (“So, what do you do?”, “Do you have children?”), and instead make conversation about the world at large, where getting-to-know-you means your take on world events; anything personal you may care to reveal without being prompted, and in your own good time. My friend Enza from Canada is like that too, and I think it is one of the most endearing qualities a person can possess.)

The upside to these humbling experiences is of course the authenticity of the encounters, the proximity to what makes your destination unique – what makes Spain Spain, for instance, or Thailand Thailand. Money is insulating, or at least it can be and we often use it in that way. It allows us to travel in the style to which we are accustomed to living, which may be vastly different to the country in which we find ourselves. It also forms a barrier between us and them. We, the tourist, consume; they, the locals, provide. The relationship, when money is changing hands, feels artificial and to some extent anyway removed from everyday (Spanish, Thai, etc) life. In my ideal world, I’d be traveling for the most part with a companion and we’d have our own transportation, probably a motorcycle, but otherwise I wouldn’t change much. Or so I think now, from the vantage point of someone without money. I’m sure I wouldn’t mind eating out more often, if only to indulge in some of the regional dishes that I can’t sample by way of the supermarket.

I’m headed south, where my first overnight stop is Bayonne. I passed through here with John in July, but it’s dark when I arrive so nothing looks familiar. At my little room in an apartment, the WiFi code is the longest I’ve ever encountered – 26 characters. My hostess is an older, very friendly woman, who points me in the direction of the only place within walking distance where I can still get something to eat on this late Sunday evening – a pizza place. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I allow myself a calculated splurge: the cheapest pasta dish on the menu and a glass of house wine, coming to just over €10. Back at the apartment I try to get online again but she has turned off the modem and gone to bed. Thankfully I booked my bus ticket to Bilbao before I went out.

The next day, Bayonne to Bilbao, then another bus overnight to Seville. I love the fact that being in the EU I don’t have to display my passport at border crossings, which hardly seem to exist anymore (Actually they’re still there, but they are dark and quiet, as if in hibernation. They can wake up at any time circumstances dictate.) I still have to keep track of my time in Schengen countries of course, but I get to decide where and when to move around within that framework.

I arrive in Seville late morning on a Tuesday, Halloween in fact. My grandmother, were she alive, would be 109 today. It’s warm, which I welcome after a chilly October in England and northern France. After one city bus and lots of time waiting I catch another bus out of Seville to a smaller town where my ride is waiting for me – Antonio, the boyfriend of the woman who has rented me an Airbnb cottage – and 10 minutes later I arrive at my lodging for the next week, in a collection of houses off the highway in the arid countryside between two towns. Being from California I’m used to Spanish style homes – ochre colored, single story squarish houses with red tile roofs – and the landscaping too feels familiar: citrus trees, bougainvillea, jasmine, palm trees. My “flat” is an attached but very private set of rooms on the end, with its own entrance and a large front porch. Inside are dark hardwood floors, comfortable furniture, and a large soft bed, on which I lay down almost immediately to rest my eyes, as my father would say. I wake up three hours later. Dusk is approaching as I wander outside. The abuela of my hostess greets me, and though she speaks no English and I precious little Spanish, she conveys that I am welcome with kind eyes and grappling, gnarled hands. Like grandmothers everywhere she speaks the language of love. Three dogs size me up and when I take a seat at the table inside I see a grey dollop of fuzz out of the corner of my eye, darting into the kitchen. This turns out to be a four week old kitten, found less than a week old wandering around an abandoned property nearby, presumably having just opened its eyes and gone in search of food. Nobody knows what happened to its mother. They took it in, christened it Misha, and it is the tiniest, spunkiest, cutest little creature I’ve ever held in the palm of my hand.

The next day Arantxa (the txa pronounced sha) takes me grocery shopping, and on a “tour” of the neighborhood. I meet a woman who runs a small store out of her house, like a corner 7-11, as well as the parents of Arantxa’s former boyfriend. As is sometimes the case, the relationship with the man ended but that with his parents continued. On the way back she tells me it is her dream to travel around the world also, alone with just a backpack, but next summer she’ll be getting married and she doesn’t know now if it will happen. I suggest she may be able to travel with Antonio, but she dismisses the idea by saying, “He is all the time working,” then adds wistfully, “I think it is best to be alone, like you are doing.” We talk about the pros and cons of traveling alone, and I too am wistful when considering the big picture, and what I hope to attain as a result of all this wandering. I agree with her in principle that one is easier than two to feed, shelter, transport, but I tell her also that unless you make friends easily (she does, she tells me; I don’t) you will find yourself alone much of the time – eating, sightseeing, or whatever it is you do when you travel – which can be immensely broadening at times as well as unspeakably lonely at others, much like life in general. As honestly as I can I disabuse her of the notion that as a woman, particularly with very restrictive finances, you can go wherever you want whenever you want, alone. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t push boundaries and challenge ourselves culturally or politically (or any other way), it is to say we should take calculated risks, and personal safety especially for women cannot be taken for granted anywhere, less so in some places than others. It is to say that even the most solitary among us are social beings if we are to be found within the “healthy” range of the mental health spectrum. It is to say that when my grief counselor diagnosed me with “Major Depression, Severe” a year and a half ago because the DSM does not categorize grief as a mental health condition, I had no idea at the time that this meant I’ll go through the rest of my life doing the same things most other people do, and even some things that they don’t, but I’ll do them differently; like walking, but with a limp. It is to say that so much depends on age, experience, expectation, perception, resources and personality.

That night I hardly sleep, due to one or more pesky mosquitoes that buzz in my ear every time I nod off. Three days later and I’ve yet to get back to Seville to explore. This is partly due to lethargy – easily attributable to several nights of insomnia, fruitless mosquito hunting, a late night glass of spirits under a full moon, sore muscles, a sleeping pill, and a lingering sense of disappointment after learning, first, that the plan Johnny England and I had to ride down through Greece and into Turkey in November is now off the table as he can’t get away like he hoped, and second, that Ingrid’s plans have changed as well, and she won’t be able to host me in India after all – and partly due to bad weather and a bout of my recurrent need to hunker down as it were, to be alone for a bit, quiet and contemplative, without any agenda. I wonder too if these mosquitoes are a different sort, if they carry a venom to which my body is not familiar, because not only do the bites endure and itch for days, but I feel run down, achy and listless too (more than usual).

Periodically one of the dogs, Lola, a pit bull mix by the looks of her who reminds me of my friend Jenn’s dog, comes to my door to greet me. I open the door and pet her while she licks my hand and wags her tail, her whole body wiggling. Today she sauntered off after one of these encounters only to reappear an hour or so later with a huge dead (or so I tell myself) rat in her mouth. Now see, this is what I’m talking about. How are you going to get that in a five star hotel?

A magnificent book, recommended to me by my dear friend Kathy: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

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