Sunday, July 7, 2013

Risks of workaway, or boy, I had one hell of a week.

I afford traveling by working for hosts in exchange for room and board. I find the hosts on the workaway and wwoof websites. There are other, similar websites, but as they all charge a fee, I stick with the first two I've discovered.

I've had decent luck finding hosts so far. Aside from the crazy French lady that accused me of breaking my arm on purpose so I could have a vacation, my hosts have all been pretty decent. I've had a few minor complaints over the past year, like the farmer's wife who can't cook, but no serious problems. I've had great luck in the Riogordo area, spending most of my time with a British - er sorry, English family helping them get a couple of casitas ready for rental. They are good folk, and spent some time teaching me the Queen's English. Whatthefuckever.

But, there is always a risk that one could arrive at a gig and find it all a bit off.

My time with the English came to an end, and I had to move on. I had recently met a girl on some online dating site, so I narrowed my search to her vicinity, so I would have a chance to meet her. I got lucky and found a gig with a woman who struck me as a back-to-the-lander, hippie sort. Sounded good to me. I get along real well with aging hippies. We made a plan for me to arrive on Wednesday

Saturday, I boarded the 5:00 bus from Riogordo and headed up near Catalonia. Two buses and far too many hours later, I disembarked in the town of that girl I met, who had been nicknamed Sex Mad Girl, or SMG, by a friend of mine, and I headed towards her place. We had an amazing few days, and I'm not giving any details except to say she fucks like a champ. Yay.

Wednesday, I boarded yet another bus off to Santa Barbara (no, not California, Catalonia), home of the hippie lady. My first impression was that I was correct in my assumptions of her. Second impression was that she should stop scratching her bug bites so much. She looked like a junkie.

But, she was nice enough, though a bit of a flake. She gave me a tour of her finca, and I was both dismayed and hopeful. Dismayed because the over-grown, ramshackled, run- down place needed a huge amount of work, and the living quarters for workawayers was somewhat sub-par. My room was clean and large, but the windows had no screens, and this is a buggy land. The roof was uninsulated metal, and the place turned into an oven by midday. The bathroom had no running water, requiring a bucket to flush the toilet. Shower was inoperable. The kitchen and living area had their doors left open to let air in, along with the chickens. The floor was covered in chicken shit. The fridge, stove, counter-tops, sink, everything was dusty and filthy and in need of a massive cleaning effort.

I was hopeful because SMG lived less than fifty kilometers (I'm in Europe, I use the metric system now. Deal) south, and I could visit her now and then while working on this farm for perhaps many months. Many, many months. I started formulating a plan to be useful to this flaky hippie lady and have her want to keep me around.

After the tour, we sat and chatted for a few hours, and I realized that she is a lonely woman, lost in her over-grown finca, looking for something. I also realized that she liked her white wine. That's okay by me, I enjoy drinking myself.

We built a fire outside, and cooked dinner on it. She was shocked to hear that I haven't cooked on a campfire since my youth. Whilst eating burnt meat and undercooked potatoes, I realized why Americans go for those fancy gas grills. They are easier.

The next day was a bit of work, a tour of Santa Barbara, and another dinner cooked over an open fire. This time, the meat wasn't quite as charred. She was blitzed on her wine again, but that's okay. I enjoy drinking myself.

After dinner, I borrowed the hippie's internet stick, as she called it, a USB, 3G plugin thingy. She told me it was "limited, very slow." I took that to mean that the speeds were limited and slow because it's only 3G. turns out she meant it had a limit of one gig, or jeega as she called it, of download available. Anything over that, the connection speed would be throttled down. Something that we should have been clear on. Oops.

Cause SMG and I spent some time video chatting. The speed was fast enough for that, though a bit blurry. The next day, though, the hippie lady mentioned that I used up the whole jeega, and I was confused. She said she was taking her siesta. I went back to work.

Later, I had a question about the work, so I sought her out. She was very drunk, and still angry about the missing jeega. Eventually, I figured out the reason for her ire and attempted an apology. She told me she was pissed, not working, and staggered inside. I quit for the day.

Later, I realized that she would not be preparing dinner, and I raided the fridge, getting enough food for breakfast at the same time. I was in the midst of spreading peanut butter on bread when she stopped by to complain about my stealing food from her fridge, and I attempted to explain that feeding me was part of the workaway deal. She slurred something about her missing jeega and stomped off.

Next morning, Saturday, she was already drunk at nine, when I first saw her. She glared at me and wandered back into her house. I quit work by ten, something about not getting fed makes me lazy, and gave myself a sponge bath in the chicken shit covered workers kitchen. 

By afternoon, I was sitting in a cafe in Santa Barbara, drinking cafe con leche, chatting with SMG, and emailing potential hosts for work. I found a few maybe decent hosts, and sent off four emails. SMG was kind and offered me her place until I could find a new gig. I said that I would try to work things out with the hippie lady. I mean, two days drunk should be enough for a bender.

But, no she stretched it into three. I had just finished washing my hair in a bucket of cold water (damn that pony-tail) when she yelled at me through the window that she doesn't run a hotel and that she hates that I was there. I decided to leave.

Five hours later, I found myself back at SMG's, peaceful and content. I was lucky that I have a friend nearby that could take me in, but what of others? College kids traveling around who may be stuck, desperately searching for a new host, while a crazy, drunken hippie is yelling that they need to leave? Workaway is designed to help people travel on a budget. I have 70 euros in my pocket, so a hostel for even a night would have been a big expense for me. Workaway does allow the leaving of feedback on profiles, and I left one on the hippie's, for other travelers deserve to know that the lady is an unstable drunk. Such are the risks of workaway.

And, for what it's worth, Santa Barbara is an ugly ass town.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I am typing this with one hand. My left, dominant, arm is in a sling, recently broken after stepping into a ditch and falling. I was only slightly drunk. After dragging myself to my feet and hobbling off, I stopped at the first bar I came to and got very drunk. Despite my bloody face and hand, the bartender didn’t bat an eye when I dragged myself up to the bar and ordered a cubalibre. That’s what they call a rum and coke in Spain. They serve the rum in a tall skinny glass three quarters full (about three shots worth) and give a small bottle of Coke on the side. A 25cl (10oz) glass bottle. It cost €3. I like Spain

Have I mentioned that I’m living in Spain, now?

I had two, which was enough to get completely sloshed. I am a lightweight, which is good. It’s cost efficient. I fail to understand those who brag about the amount they can drink. Sure, they can drink me under the table, but I can get drunk quicker and cheaper. The downside of being a lightweight is that I at times fail to pace myself. I can get to the point of incoherence while my companions are still ordering rounds of shots.

I limped home, or what I am currently calling home. My left arm was immobile, my left thigh throbbing, my left hand and forehead skun and bleeding. I was a mess and in considerable pain, but the alcohol made it bearable. I got to the place I was staying and passed out. Two days later, I finally went to the hospital and they told me I had a hairline fracture. I think. The doc’s English, while a hell of a lot better than my Spanish, was poor. And, my translator sucked. They put me in a sling and said to come back in three weeks.

Caroll drove me to the hospital and acted (poorly) as my translator. She is my host. Our agreement was that I was to work for her for two weeks in exchange for room and board. After four days of starting several projects and finishing none (That’s how Caroll likes to work. It keeps her from getting bored.), Caroll proposed changing the days off schedule because she felt it was too windy to work. I, always eager to take a day off, agreed.

I left the house at 11:30, headed to a nearby village that Google Maps calls Lecrin, but Caroll insists is Talara. Regardless of the name, I found an ATM and got some cash. My plan was to wander, explore, and hit a bar or two.

I ended up hitting five bars in four villages. The tapas bars around here all offer the same deal. A smallish glass of beer (10 or 12 oz) and a tapa, or snack for about €1.50, maybe €1.80. The tapas are small portions, and vary. I was served a goodish sized portion of boiled, unpeeled shrimp, salad, grilled pork on bread, hard cheese and smoked ham, french fries, two omelets (I hate eggs), and too many olives to count (I hate olives).

Between bars, I explored. All of these villages are the pueblo blanco, or white villages, that Andalucia is famous for. The buildings are built of stone or concrete blocks for the newer ones, plastered in a type of cement and painted white. I have seen a few buildings not white, but only a few. The windows are small and usually shuttered during the day to keep out the heat. The streets are narrow and winding, often large enough for only one lane, sometimes too small for even a car. There seems to be a custom for deciding who has right of way when two vehicles meet, but I have yet to figure it out.

The terrain here is incredibly hilly, and roads meander and switchback endlessly. Often one must walk ten kilometers to travel three. Or, so it seems. The hills are sculpted into terraces, wide enough for a row of trees and a small path. Trees are almost always one of four varieties: orange, lemon, olive, and almond. Roadways and gutters are littered with fallen oranges, run over and rotting. I’ve been told that farmerss get paid ten cents a kilo for oranges, and I wonder if it’s even worth the effort of harvesting them. Those who are not farmers, but have a house in the countryside with orange trees do not think so. After taking what they use themselves, they leave the rest on the ground to rot.

After the first bar, I found a path that headed into the woods (woods being planted trees and brush) that ran along a concrete irrigation channel. The channel was about a foot wide and a foot deep. Every now and then there was a steel plate blocking a side path that could be moved to close the main channel. Hence, only one farm could be irrigated at a time. I wondered if, during dry spells, that caused any problems.

I followed the path, looking down at the tops of orange trees on my right, and a steep embankment of clay rising up on my left. Eventually, I came upon a gully with a stream along the bottom. The channel continued across the gully on a stone bridge and disappeared into the woods. There was a metal gate at my end of the bridge, and the water was being diverted over the side. I did notice a path leading down, but it met with the water cascading off, so I didn’t bother trying. I headed back the direction I came.

Back on the street, I discovered that the path continued on the other side, so I followed. Here, the path was concrete, sometimes along the channel, sometimes over it. The land was more gradually sloped, and the trees were behind walls of cement blocks. The path ended at an intersection with a bar on the corner. I stopped in for refueling. A wee lad was there, and we ended up playing soccer. Our abilities were about evenly matched.

A few pubs and two villages later, I found myself in Restabal, a village carved into the side of a steep hill. Here the streets were very steep, at times so steep that I worried about my balance. I wondered how the elderly and disabled got around. While exploring, I noticed the sun beginning to set and realized that I should head for home. It gets dark fast around here, and I had neglected to bring a flashlight.

Barely out of town, and still a half hour walk home, with the sky dark, I stepped into a ditch and fell. I landed on my stomach, dazed and in pain. Lying there, I looked around, trying to figure out what the fuck just happened. I saw my glasses lying in front of me, unbroken. I put them on, always a good first step. I saw my hat, so I put it on also. I’m not sure if that was a good second step, but I like my hat, and I don’t want to lose it. I took stock of where I hurt and realized that my left arm and left leg really hurt. Hurt enough so I was worried I might have done serious damage. I tried to stand and failed. I couldn’t move my left arm without great pain, so I tried using just my right to get standing. It was slow progress, but I used a wall nearby to help support my weight. Eventually I could stand. I attempted to walk and found that I could, though with an awful limp. I was glad to realize that my leg wasn’t broken.

I limped to the bar and enjoyed my cubalibre.

The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed with a good amount of difficulty and put on my glasses, always a good first step. They were blurry, and I discovered that the left lense was caked with dried blood. It was the first time I realized that I had scraped my forehead.

My arm and leg both hurt badly, but I figured that if I could walk, then my leg injury must have been a contusion. I further figured that since my leg and arm hurt equally, and my leg wasn’t broken, then my arm probably wasn’t either. I decided to give it a day and see how I felt.

The next day I asked Caroll to drive me to the hospital. In the waiting room, she asked if I subconsciously hurt myself on purpose so I could have a vacation. I resisted the impulse to smack her.

After the initial consultation and x-rays, we were back in the examining room with two doctors. Caroll and the docs were jabbering away in Spanish looking at the x-rays, with Caroll not bothering to translate a damned thing. Eventually, I asked if it was broken, and one doctor said I had a small break. They fitted me with a sling.

On the way home, Caroll said I was lucky to get a rest, and she worried how I would be able to get my work finished. I worried about the bill.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Paris (PAH-ree), Part Un

I suck at the actual travel part of traveling, which makes life as a traveler unnecessarily difficult. I tend to fail to properly plan ahead and end up stressing while dealing with my lack of preparedness during the travel. It's hard to enjoy the destination parts of travel, if the travel part is so screwed. Hence, my first impression of Paris was "Meh."

But, months after the fact, I can mock myself, and hopefully entertain my dozen or so regular readers in the process.

After close to four months living and working at the farm, I was beginning to think about moving on, but not actually doing anything about moving on, when a friend from college contacted me with a proposition. She was visiting New York for a couple of weeks, and wanted to know if I could take care of her four dogs and one cat at her place in France while she was gone.

I like dogs, so I said sure.

I left the farm on October 9th. The farmer's brother gave me a ride to the nearest train station and was kind enough to help me figure out the damn ticket machine, which takes credit cards and coins. No paper bills. Not one to carry around €9 of pocket change, I had to rely on the brother to use his credit card and pay him in cash. Mistake #1.

I took the train into Amsterdam Centraal, and walked to the ticket office for the bus line. I had decided to take an overnight bus trip because they were less than half the cost of a train ticket. Also, more than twice the travel time, but time is money, or money is time, or something.

But, alas, the ticket office was closed. Mistake #2. A sign in the window directed me to another ticket office back towards Centraal Station, so I walked back and found the office. Once there, I was informed that the office only sold sightseeing tickets and not travel tickets. For those, I would have to take the subway to the edge of town to the main ticket office. That's also where the buses depart. I should have taken the train there in the first place instead of Centraal Station. Mistake #3.

So, I walked as fast as I could (I don't run) back to Centraal to catch the subway. Of course, I didn't have enough change for the ticket machine, but I was able to beg a dime from a couple at the next machine. Mistake #4.

I found the subway okay and headed to the proper station, Amsterdam Amstel. Just like the beer. I'll be able to remember that in the future. I found the bus station and went to buy my ticket. It cost €10 more the price advertised online. The counter guy explained that overnight buses cost more. Mistake #5. I also noticed an advertising sign stating that if I bought my ticket at least 15 days in advance, I could have gotten it for only €9. Ouch. Mistake #6.

I wanted to use the restroom, but they charged €0.50, so I decided I'd just wait the hour and a half until the bus was supposed to leave. I figured that I could maybe use the one on the bus for free. But, of course, once the bus arrived, loaded up, and departed, I discovered that it didn't have a toilet. I'm not sure if that's a Europe thing, or just this company, but I was stuck wishing that I just paid the fifty cents at the station. Or pissing behind a dumpster. Mistake #7.

After a couple of hours, the bus pulled into a service station off the highway, and I was able to run in and use their restroom. They charged me €0.50. Charging for using a toilet is a very European thing. Every restroom in a train or bus station or gas station that I've tried to use charged €0.50. I guess it's a way of keeping out the riffraff. I'm not sure what keeps the riffraff from just using a gutter or the back of a dumpster.

The bus ride, while tedious, was uneventful. Eventually we arrived on the outskirts of Paris at about 5:30 AM, and I took the subway to Gare Saint-Lazare (Gare is French for station). My friend lives about an hour west of Paris, and our plan was for me to take the 12:20 train. That would give me some time to walk around some, have a croissant, and watch Paris wake up.

But, first, I wanted to get my train ticket. Though, when I got to Saint-Lazare, I discovered that I didn't have enough money for my ticket. I was about €2 short. I never bothered to ask my friend how much the ticket was. Mistake #8. And, it dawned on me that I never bothered to ask my friend for her phone number in case of an unexpected development, like not being able to afford a fucking train ticket. Mistake #9.

I decided to do what one always ought to do in seemingly hopeless situations. Go have a cigarette.

So I left the station and saw the streets of Paris for the first time. It was raining. I stood facing a plaza of cracked and crumbling asphalt. Beyond stood buildings caked with soot and grime. Litter filled the streets. Paris, a dull, dreary, filthy city. Meh.

So, I huddled against the wall under an eave and considered my options. I could just board the train without a ticket. Folks try such scams all the time without getting caught. But, I fear prison, especially in foreign countries. I don't want to be asked to leave. I thought that I could find a pawn shop and sell something I might have of value. But I hadn't much to sell, except maybe a used but still in good condition beard trimmer. I could start hitchhiking to the station where my friend was to pick me up, but I feared my luck wouldn't go well. I did have two American singles stuck in the back of my wallet for some reason, so I decided to wait until a bank opened and try to exchange them, and hope that I would get just enough.

The bank across the street opened in three hours, so I had time to kill. I thought about food. I found a bench in the station and read while occasionally thinking about croissants. I was at the bank when they opened, and they happily told me that they don't change money. They told me that there was a cash exchange place in the station. I found the place, and as I handed him my two singles, I wondered if I looked like the hapless, desperate sap that I felt I was. If so, the guy didn't mention it. As he was getting me a pile of coins, I noticed a lone twenty cent piece left by a previous costumer sitting in the metal tray. I took it along with my change. He didn't notice or care or maybe both.

I tallied it all up and found myself nineteen cents shy. If only I had pissed behind the fucking dumpster.

So, for the first time in my life, I went panhandling. The third guy I asked gave me twenty cents. It took only five minutes.

Leaving the ticket office, a panhandler asked me for spare change. I gave him my last cent. He didn't seem appreciative.