Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

I’m beginning to see the light August 27, 2008

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

I’ve been feeling a little bit shagged, having spent last night on the night train from Lisbon to Madrid. After a brief snooze on the early morning flight from Dublin, I realized that saving a few euro was NOT worth the lost sleep and neck pain, so I went ahead and booked a couchette (one small step above a regular seat, but at least you get to lay down). Sadly, I was in the top bunk. (Seriously, how do I put an end to that!?!?)

Even more sadly, I did not get to pick my roommates. It was me and three girls who texted and made phone calls at full ‘middle of the day’ volume (I would have paid good money to learn the Portuguese word for whisper) – and received them in turn – all night long. What a tragedy that Portugal can’t produce a phone with a ‘vibrate’ or ‘silent’ mode. Or that its youth is too rude to use them or know how to SHUT THE F**K UP AT 3AM.

Either way, combine that with the rocking and rolling circa 1960 train (with the fluorescent light that would flicker half on with the worst of the turns and bumps like some kind of deranged northern light), and I had one of those sleeps where you would look at your watch and it would be 1am, and 2:30a.m. and 4:00 a.m., and you’re amazed that it’s that late and perhaps you’ve slept at all.

So it followed that around 2am, something (so many options to choose from) woke me, and I realized I had to pee like a race horse. I lay there and shifted in my tiny horrible bed and tried to find a position where I could forget about it or fall back asleep…but it just wasn’t happening. So I had to give up and leave the room and use the horrific train toilet. Is that just dumping out onto the track or ???

Anyway, the whole thing – and so much of my travel – is completely size discriminatory. Normally, I am something of a small person. However, on this trip – because of the backpack – I am not. And it makes me super aware of how the world is not very friendly in that regard. Today I could barely fit into the lift with my backpack on, let alone through the Madrid subway turnstiles. In the same vein, as I was wandering back to the couchette in a completely bleary-eyed stupor, a very large man was heading down the hallway toward me. I already know that

  1. The odds that he speaks English are next to nothing

  2. There is no freaking way we are both fitting down this hall

  3. I don’t even know that he can fit down this hall

At the sight of his approach, I started backing up. He kept coming toward me and sending me way out of the way, and eventually I had to try to pantomime that my room was just up the hall. He seemed to understand and backed up so that I could get to it (this is a lot like the dance in the aisle on the airplane if you ever get in the way of the beverage cart). So I get there, gone just a minute or two, and with the intent to quietly climb back up into my top bunk like the Spider Monkey I have become and no one the wiser, when…what do you know but…MY ROOMMATES HAVE LOCKED ME OUT.

I keep twisting and turning the knob and looking up at the number two on the door. “Are you f-ing KIDDING me!?” I think to myself, as I size up the situation. Just then, not wanting to miss an opportunity, my rotund hallmate charges down the hall, plasters himself up against me (now banging on the door), and starts trying to grope me. I heard the bolt click just as he was moving into areas that would get him knocked out cold. Douchebag.

Needless to say, I’m feeling a little tired and pissed off today.

On a totally unrelated topic, I‘ve been running into a lot of quotes lately that strike me, and I usually stop where I am – even if that involves an awkward moment to relocate the oversized bag on my back and dig out some paper and a pen – and write them down. The other day I was reading something in an old collection of articles that referenced Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor. She wrote: “To paraphrase a parable of Brother Kierkegaard’s, if you put a bunch of people in a lobby and give them two doors to choose between – one that says ‘transformation’ and another that says ‘lecture on transformation’, most of them are going to line up for the lecture.”

A year ago, I might have done the same. However, here I am, most definitely through the door of transformation. At least I hope so.

You see, when this idea occurred to me – to recreate the trip I took when I was 19 years old – it felt urgent, even involuntary. It seemed like something I had to do, that there were lessons I needed to learn and things I needed to give up and struggles I needed to have in order to push myself past my boundaries and grow into who I am meant to be. But in the back of my mind I remembered how hard this was the first time and knew it wouldn’t be easy.

So not to bitch and moan – because I know this is something I elected to do, and although it’s a trip conducted very much on the cheap and at times it feels a little torturous, it’s still a luxury.- but some days this sh!t is just plain old hard, and it about makes you want to cry.

It is incredibly humbling to haul your every possession on your back and be alone and adrift – an alien unable to communicate with anyone around you. Portions of the Madrid metro are closed right now, which rendered my trip to the opposite side of town (where my squalid concrete block room is located) grueling. It was as hard as I’ve been pushed thus far.

I am starting to think some of what I need to learn is about humility and patience. And being real. And being kind to myself in the moment, even when the moment totally sucks. These are hard lessons in their own stupid way. It’s much, much easier to check out or blame other people or attend the lecture instead of the full-immersion course.

However, despite it all, I can see the little blessings. Like how people are kind and they try to help. As I was wandering aimlessly trying to find the Madrid Metro station earlier today, I stopped a man for help. Once we confirmed that he didn’t speak a word of English (no one here seems to, oddly), and I didn’t know much Spanish, he began an intricate pantomime to explain to me how to get to the Metro. It involved Putting his thumb to his lips and waving the remaining fingers in front of his face while dancing around and making a strange sound. I don’t know how, but eventually I realized this was to symbolize the train station. Then, he went into a violent shoving motion to his left, and it became clear that I must go through the train station and to the left. Voila, a half a kilometer later and there it was. I had to laugh.

A friend asked me what the best part has been, and the best parts are – for me, anyway – the simple little moments where the world seems so small and so beautiful: Running along a lonely road in England or watching birds dive into the ocean in Iceland. Yesterday, for example, I was walking to the train station in Portugal, and the last street vendors were packing up for the night. It was dark out and everyone was long gone from the avenues. The street lights provided the only life. A s a man was packing up his paintings he noticed me trudging past. “Come or go?” he asked, as I had my bag on my back. “Go,” I said to him, “Boa noite.”

“Bye bye, Girl!” he called after me with a wave, “Have a nice day!”

Across the plaza another man was playing a radio, and an old American song from the 1940s – “I’m beginning to see the light” – was drifting across the uneven cobblestone, and everything seemed strangely warm and embracing and perfect for a split second. And that’s what’s keeps me going.

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3 Responses to “I’m beginning to see the light”

  1. bea Says:

    How old are you? I’m 62 and want to try traveling alone and I would like to go to Portugal next summer. I want to take art lessons and golf. I was thinking of staying in Bed and Breakfast places. Any recommendations on traveling alone and not being lonely?
    I want to do this to feel the freedom of going where you want and not having to rely on a traveling parnter.
    Bea

  2. wideawakeinwonderland Says:

    Hi Bea. I’m 35. I say go for it. I don’t think there’s ever travel that’s regrettable, and if you’re golfing and taking lessons, you’d meet people there.
    In my opinion, loneliness is a state of mind. You can focus on the fact that you’re ‘alone’, or you can focus on where you are and what you’re seeing and the freedom to do as you please (and not do as you please) and be alone with your thoughts for a small piece of your life. Sometimes I wish I had someone to talk to, but I have my blog to keep me company! When I see something funny or stupid or interesting, I write it down for the blog. We all have our ways of coping with the ‘alone’ aspect, I guess. Good luck to you! And again, I say book the trip!

  3. Hi Bea-I too would like to start traveling alone. I am 64 yrs. old. I feel that if I can just get up the nerve to take my first trip, then I will be okay after that.


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