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  • Thursday, January 22, 2015

    Decisions, Decisions

    I’m a very indecisive person. I tend to stop, weigh all my options, and then make an informed rational choice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be debilitating. Sometimes I never come to a rational conclusion, then do nothing. I even make simple decisions, like buying groceries, needlessly complicated. I’ll often find myself walking around a supermarket multiple times before I even put anything in my cart.
    So when I got mugged a couple nights ago, it should come as no surprise that I stood still with the tip of my hiking pole pointed at a man holding a stun gun, considering all my options.
    I recently decided to head to Spain’s Sierra Nevada National Park. I couldn’t remember the last time I camped in the same place for more than one night. Camping used to be like meditation to me, but being constantly on the move has taken some of that away from the experience. I planned to setup a base camp on a remote site in the mountains, without moving forward for a few days.

    My last chance to pick up groceries and charge my batteries was in a city called Almeria on the southern coast. On my way to the grocery store, I found a McDonald’s, so went inside to look for an empty electrical outlet. I sat for hours eating junk food, writing, chatting with friends and family, and letting my batteries fully charge. At around midnight, I checked satellite images on Google Earth for a place nearby to setup camp for the night. I found a relatively secluded spot on a beach two miles south.
    After seeing it in person, I no longer felt good about the area, buildings abandoned, streetlights out, and it was too exposed and close to the city. I pushed my bike into the sand anyway, to have a better look around .
    There was litter strewn all over the beach, collected into piles wherever the wind carried it. From the satellite images, there seemed to be trees to hide in, but I only found shrubs shorter than my tent.

    I almost left, but the next closest place I found was ten miles away in the wrong direction, so I decided to explore the area a little closer before giving up.

    The deep sand made it hard to push the heavy bike, weighed down by gear. I unhooked my hiking poles and used one as a kickstand, so I could explore unburdened by it. I pulled out my cell phone to turn off the podcast I had been listening to. I wanted all my senses in this creepy place. That’s when I saw him. 
    I’ve never seen anyone on the beaches this late at night, so when his silhouette turned and started moving toward me, I got nervous.

    He talked to me in Spanish as he walked toward me. He didn't stop until he was uncomfortably close. Although I didn’t understand him, I knew I was seconds away from being mugged.

    I sought out this spot for the safety of isolation, but now it felt dangerously isolated. No people. No security lights. Just him and me. Our closeness would have been uncomfortable even if he wasn’t an intimidating stranger and we weren’t on a secluded beach at 1 AM.

    I tried to just walk away and hope I misread the whole situation.
    "Lo siento, no habla espanol," I said, I'm sorry I don't speak Spanish. I pushed the handlebars, the tires dug into the sand, making a quick getaway impossible. The bike suddenly felt like an anchor. He stepped in front of me. He had his right hand behind his back. He repeated the same words in Spanish. Maybe it was good I couldn't understand him.
    “Please don’t do this. Por favor,” I said. “Habla Ingles?” My voice sounded weak. I hate that my voice sounded weak.
    I gripped my other hiking pole and swung it at him. He stepped closer to me, making my swing completely ineffective. He grabbed me with his left hand. In his right, he pulled out what he was hiding. I looked down and saw the crackling blue arc of electricity.

    He tried to press the stun gun to my neck, but I reared back and grabbed his wrist. Electricity buzzed and crackled right next to my ear. I waited for the pain of electric shock. I waited for my muscles to contract. I waited for my body to drop to the ground. I was certain I'd lose everything.

    I shoved him away enough to point the hiking pole at his gut. I don't even remember doing it. He backed off. The stun gun never made contact with my skin.

    He tapped his wrist and yelled something else in Spanish. I think he was telling me to give him my watch. I didn’t have a watch. He seemed willing to back off, but not without taking something for his trouble. Then I finally heard a word I could understand.

    “Móvil! Móvil!”

    He wanted my cell phone.

    “Móvil!” He looked behind me and waved his hand as though summoning friends. I snapped my head around, but only saw an empty beach and crashing waves. If he had friends, I figured we would have met by now. He was bluffing.

    “Uno…” he started counting slowly. He lifted something white out of his pocket.

    “Dos…” Was it pepper spray?

    “Tres!” He held a white lighter above his head and flicked it, pretending to signal the others. He flicked it repeatedly, but couldn't get it to light. His hand was shaking too much.

    I had a decision to make, so of course I stopped and weighed all my options. He didn’t have backup. He didn’t have any other weapons or he would have used them by now. And he was nervous.

    Alright, Option 1: 
    Give him my phone.
    Pro: He may just take it and run.
    Con: I have over $400 invested in it. It's my only way to communicate with everyone I know and love. I'd be all alone in this Spanish speaking country at a time when I never felt more alone.
    Con: It was my only map.  I'd be lost without it.
    Pro: I'd potentially keep everything else, the bike, my laptop, my camera, and all my backpacking gear, in which I’ve invested almost three grand.
    Con: I have saved passwords and possibly personal financial information on it.
    I pulled out the phone. He held out his hand, but kept his distance due to the hiking pole still pointed at his gut. I tapped the settings button on the phone.

    “So if I give this to you, then what? You let me leave? We both just walk away?” I knew he didn’t understand a word. He said something indecipherable back to me, and then once again started to count to three. He held his lighter high in the air, flicked it, and once again failed to get it to light. I wasn't falling for his bluff, but it bought me time. I tapped the factory reset button.

    Option 2: 
    Ram the tip of this hiking pole into his gut and get psychotically violent all over his face.
    Pro: Maybe I’ll get to keep the phone. 
    Con: I could screw up, get myself tazed, and lose everything. 
    Pro: Maybe he doesn’t get away with this. Maybe he gets what he deserves. Maybe he bleeds to death in the sand.
    Con: Even if I could do it, I'd have to live with the fact that I stabbed a fellow human being for the rest of my life.
    I realized my left index finger was too swollen and painful to bend. I don't remember doing that. “I think you broke my finger,” I said.  
    “Móvil!” he yelled. “Móvil!”

    Option 3: 
    Back away with the hiking pole pointed at him and just get the hell out.
    Pro: This is finally over with.
    Con: The bike required both hands and was too heavy to move quickly in the sand. I’d have to leave it and lose everything.
    I decided to start with Option 1. If that didn’t end it, I’d move on to Option 2. Finally, if things went horribly wrong, I’d give Option 3 a go.

    I reluctantly held out my phone. The screen displayed a progress bar as it formatted. He grabbed it. I felt defeated, but even in hindsight, I can honestly say I made the right choice. The most rational of all choices.

    I pushed the heavy bike through the sand and got out of there. He didn’t move. I felt his eyes watching me from behind. When I got onto pavement, I hopped on the bike and looked back. I saw his silhouette in the silhouettes of shrubs. He had followed me at a distance.

    The streets were empty and eerily quiet. Every noise made me look over my shoulder and peddle faster. At first, I just tried to put distance between us. I turned down roads based on which were the most well lit rather than where they actually went. I looked to the stars to make sure I was at least going north, but for the first time since I’ve been here, when I looked up I saw nothing but clouds.

    After a couple of miles, I saw the McDonald’s golden arches. Only the drive-thru remained open, so I knocked on the glass door startling the manager.

    “I need to call the police," I said through the gap between the doors. "Hablas Inglés?”

    He shook his head. “No.”

    “Policía, teléfono,” I said, holding my thumb and pinky to my head, the international sign for telephone.

    He walked away for a few moments and came back with two of his employees.

    “We call police. Two minutes,” one of them said through the gap while holding up two fingers.

    “Gracias,” I said then took a seat on a bench.

    I didn’t expect the police to do anything, and of course they didn’t, but it felt irresponsible to tell no one. The first two cops didn't speak much English, so they called for another car. He spoke a little English, but it was still frustrating.
    "Are you going down there to check it out? See if you can find a guy in a black hoodie with a stun gun and a stolen cell phone," I said.
    "Well," he said. "That would be very difficult."
    "Can you at least check?"
    "We sent a third car there," he said, but I hadn't even given him the exact location yet.
    When the cops left, I stayed back to use McDonald’s free WiFi to book a hotel, since I no longer had a phone. A girl walked up to the fence behind me out of nowhere and startled me. She asked me something in Spanish.

    “No habla espanol,” I said. 
    I continued searching for a hotel, but kept one eye on her as she walked to the parking lot. Moments later, I looked back up and she was standing right in front of me. Even this smiling young woman made me nervous now. Maybe she had a weapon. Maybe she was just a decoy and her boyfriend was sneaking up behind me. I wished she would just go away.

    “Uhh, Toilet?” she asked and pointed at the entrance. She thought I was an employee and wanted in to use the restroom.
    "They are closed," I said. She smiled and left.  
    I got back on my bike to ride to the hotel two miles away. I couldn't wait to close the door to my room and lock the deadbolt. I peddled faster. Suddenly, and for the first time while I’ve been outdoors in Spain, it began to rain. And then it poured.

    I was ready to leave this country first thing in the morning and never come back.

    After I checked into the hotel, I locked the door and sat on the bed. I stayed up passed 5 AM replaying the events in my mind, only I imagined other ways it could have gone. Something dark hidden in the recesses of my brain forced me to visualize all of the ways Option 2 could have played out. In my mind I have stabbed him with the hiking pole over and over again. In the stomach, in his chest, in his neck, under his chin. I can't get those images out of my head.

    I’ve often wondered how I would handle a situation like this. Although I know I’m ridiculously indecisive, I always thought when push came to shove, I would react on instinct and with more bravery. I thought I was the kind of man who would stick up for himself, and just maybe, the kind of man who would have jabbed him with the hiking pole, pinned him to the ground and broke his goddamned face. As it turns out, that isn’t who I am. I’m the kind of man who stops, weighs all his options, and then makes an informed rational choice, even when being mugged. I think I'm glad for that.

    Except that I’m not.

    I don’t care about the phone. It's just money. I know I made the right choice. I have absolutely no doubt about that and I appreciate how lucky I am for how things turned out. I just want the fantasy back. I want to go back to believing that when push came to shove, I'd stand up for myself. For once I could set rationality aside and reacted with instinct and fearlessness.
    The next morning, I walked to the grocery store to pick up supplies. I walked down the aisles looking at labels, mentally calculating costs per calorie, putting things in my cart, deciding my choices weren't healthy enough and putting them back.
    I stopped.  
    “You’re still doing it. Quit over-thinking everything!” I silently berated myself. I walked back to the beginning of the first aisle with an empty cart. I breathed in deeply then out. 
    "Alright, let's do this again."

    I was out the door in under ten minutes with two grocery bags in my hands. A small thing, I know, but it's progress. 
    There was still the matter of what to do next. Rather than sit in my hotel room for the rest of the day weighing my options, I resolved to continue like nothing has changed. I'm riding into Sierra Nevada mountains now to find a remote quiet place to setup camp.

    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    Financial Responsibilities

    I peddled uphill on the shoulder of a busy highway, my legs burning, my butt raised off the seat struggling to get to the crest without stopping. Motorists passed me on their morning commute. Although exhausted, I was glad I wasn't one of them.
    I’ve worked less than 12 of the last 43 months, but I haven’t forgotten how I felt on those drives to work, the tedium, the apprehension, the feeling that it was pointless while simultaneously feeling that it was just a necessary part of life, something everybody did, and therefore something I shouldn't be complaining about. If only I knew then what I know now. 
    Recently someone asked me, “How can you just walk away from your financial responsibilities?” It confused me for a moment, partly because it seemed judgmental, but mostly because I didn't know what financial responsibilities he referred to. Food and toothpaste? Is it so unthinkable that someone could have no financial responsibilities? I would have been equally confused if he asked, "how could you just walk away from your lawn mowing responsibilities?" 
    Before doing this, however, I never would have guessed how inexpensive living could be, so I thought I'd give a quick summary of what I have spent in the last 8 days:
    2 Kilos of Muesli with dried fruit... €3.18
    1 Box of Cereal… €1.15
    4 Liters of UHT Milk... €2.48
    1 Package of Chocolate Donuts… €2.00
    1 Large loaf of Bread... €1.00
    4 Fresh Baked Bread Rolls… €1.00
    1 Package of Hot Dogs... €1.38
    1 Package of Ham… €2.00
    1 Package of Cheese... €1.80
    1 Package of Butter…€1.00
    2 Packages of Pasta... €1.79
    2 Containers of Spaghetti Sauce... €2.00
    2 Cans of Soup... €1.78
    Two Bunches of Bananas... €1.20
    8 or 9 Oranges... €1.53
    Dozen Eggs (hard-boiled or scrambled for breakfast)... €1.35
    2 Bags of Peanuts... €1.18
    10 Packets of Instant Coffee… €0.75
    1 Tube of Toothpaste… €2.99
    1 Bottle of Stove Fuel… €1.59

    Food and Supplies Total… €33.15
    Converted into U.S. dollars, that is about $38.34 or $4.79 per day for 8 days of food and supplies. Now extrapolate that out to a month. My other typical monthly expenses include my cell phone, at $17.35, and about one night per week in a room to do laundry, charge batteries, and get a proper shower. This varies, but the total cost of my last four nights indoors, two in an apartment and two in a nearly empty hostel, cost $71.72. 
    So, the grand total for one month of cycling around Spain, staring at rugged mountains, camping on empty beaches, having time to watch the sunrise and set, experiencing the culture of a place I've never seen before, and not ever having to commute to work… $232.77.
    Round it up to $300 for other little expenses or if you want to eat a little better than that or stop at the occasional restaurant. 
    I don't regret spending those mornings driving to work, for what has always been a meager salary. Without it, the last 43 months wouldn't have been possible. Had I known how simple and inexpensive a great life could be, however, none of it would have felt so pointless. Financial freedom isn't about making more money. It's about having more money than you need. I could have spent the last 43 months making more money, but it has been a lot more fun figuring out how to just need less. 
    One more thing, here are some photos of how I spent those eight days and a few days before:


    My bed for the night of the Quadrantid meteor shower. The full moon was too bright, but I still saw three.

    Love locks can be found on bridges and lookouts all over Spain.

    Southern Spain became more mountainous and remote

    A wetlands nature preserve

    A monument for the victims of a terrorism

     Remote camping spots are very easy to find in Southern Spain

    A long exhilarating 10% grade. Totally worth the cycle up.

    Fishermen in Isla Plana, Spain

    The mountainous and remote Southern Spain, a perfect wintering spot for a vagabond.

    This was a difficult ride up, but the view and the ride coming down the other side was fantastic.

    The view from the top before a long fast ride downhill.

    Friday, January 9, 2015


    (Photo: The only picture I dared to take on the avenue)
    I saw my first bikinis on a Spanish beach on the potbellied, retired and elderly men and women of England. Some lay in beach chairs bronzing the oiled skin of their distended bellies. Others stood on the shore in packs of two to four chatting with their arms crossed on a stack of breast and belly rolls. The more modest, properly clothed, lined up on benches with shopping bags sitting between their feet, watching people go by through the lenses of sunglasses that looked like welders goggles or in the shade of wide-brimmed sunhats.

    “What did I stumble upon?” I thought as I peddled up this crowded coastal tree-lined avenue in Benidorm, Spain.

    I weaved around motorized carts humming along at three miles-per-hour. People at tables under tiki parasols ate lunch while a man with a guitar played acoustic British rock. A chalkboard sign at a busy beachside restaurant advertised a five-euro Full Irish Breakfast special. When I passed Piccadilly Bar, I had to wonder why this community in Spain tried so hard to give an English experience to their English tourists. What was more perplexing is why it worked.

    I've passed dozens of all but abandoned coastal towns where you could have an apartment and an entire beach to yourself for $25 a day or towns on the coast with plenty of restaurants, attractions, and shops for under $100 a day.  I understand the desire to find warmer weather in the winter, but I couldn’t help but think, if you’re going to Spain, why not go to Spain?

    And was that a pan flute player playing ABBA covers? That's even more confusing. I decided it was time to get back on the road.

    - - -

    Meanwhile, a few miles later... "See that girl, watch that scene, diggin' the Dancing Queeeen---Ahh, stop singing that, Ryan!"