The small cobblestone street pulsed with music, illuminated by a ceiling of small lights strung overhead and street lamps lining the sidewalks. I didn’t know what time it was. It could have been 6 AM, it could have been midnight— no one cared. Locals dressed in mermaid and roman soldier costumes danced packed in the streets, and the music was so loud at the end we shouted at each other to be heard. Bars were set up along the street selling tapas and beer, little grills perched on top of some, filled with coals and skewers of chicken on top. Any free space along the sidewalks were occupied by vendors selling masks and flashing neon bracelets, and big balloons in the shape of animals seemed to pulse in time with the music as they floated overhead.
The day before, I had befriended two really cool guys staying at the hostel; Glynn, a tall blonde Canadian, who was a doctor and one of the nicest, smartest people I’ve met, and Cameron, a really open down to earth Brit with dark hair and hazel eyes. All night we had been passing around cigarillos, street sandwiches, gin and tonics, and drinking swigs out of the giant bottle of wine Glynn had bought for only 3 euro. Everyone was singing along and dancing, and I was in the packed crowd, dancing with a gorgeous local guy with the most beautiful, sexy accent.
Music drifted across the sea to Morocco, whose twinkling lights could be seen across the water in the distance. It didn’t matter how many miles I had biked that day, or what the purpose of my trip was. It didn’t matter what lay before me or behind, or what I wanted for tomorrow. I was dancing with a beautiful man in a small, Spanish town, somewhere along the coast— and all that mattered was that moment in time.
* * *
Somewhere on the Spanish Coast between Conil de la Frontera and Tarifa
It was midday, several days before. The sun, which had risen peacefully hours earlier, was beating down around me now. The aqua sea rolled along hundreds of feet below me onto steep, rocky cliffs. I could taste the salt on my lips from sweating. There was no shade anywhere, and I was running out of water.
I was trying to find a small, local road to Tarifa. It was supposed to be a shortcut, to bypass the bigger roads that looped north around the mountains. Instead of a shortcut that would have cut 10 kilometers off my ride, I found a maze of residential streets, some of which were currently being constructed and would start up the mountain only to dead end at the top. Giant mansions with gates were perched everywhere on the cliffs, vacant now because of the off-season. The only people for miles around were construction workers I would see now and again, working on the existing mansions and extending the roads. I was lost in a maze of streets in a ghost town, somewhere on the Spanish coast.
I was biking up a steep section of the mountain road, hoping it was leading to Tarifa, when a guy working on a house called to me, and told me the road to Tarifa was to the right, down the hill.
“Thanks!” I called, eyeballing the steep descent warily. If he was wrong, I’d have to come back up it. I had already biked 40 miles since leaving Conil de la Frontera that morning, and was exhausted. If this was the right road, I only had 10 kilometers to go. If it wasn’t, I’d have to go back the way I came, through the mountains, and take the highway to Tarifa which would be another 25 miles. There was nothing between where I was and Tarifa. No food, and no water— I had to make Tarifa that night.
I sped down the hill, then spent the next hour slogging up the mountain, finding one dead end after another. I didn’t have a GPS, just maps and my bike computer to tell me how many miles I had gone. Most of the time, I would chart my route online the night before and draw a more detailed map in my notebook to consult along the way. I like traveling old school, but at this moment, it was failing me.
“Hola!” I called to a construction worker I came across, after I had just hit another dead end, “Donde esta la calle a Tarifa?”
He responded in rapid Spanish, and I didn’t understand a single word he said. He repeated again, and another worker standing behind him called out, “Derecha! Derecha!”
That I understood— to the right. They were both gesturing to the right, where I could see another unfinished looking road curving around to the right. I thanked them, clipped into my bike pedals, and raced down the steep hill. It had gotten even hotter. I was only wearing yoga pants and a light mesh shirt overtop my sports bra, but I was roasting. As the road curved around, it became the steepest ascent I had seen yet. It would be tough to walk up the road, much less bike up it. I got off my bike, and started walking it up the hill.
I struggled to keep it upright as I dragged it, gripping the handlebars and trekking up the hill alongside it. My bike shoes were slipping on the gravel and slick pavement, and the tires on my bike slid from side to side. It had taken me almost an hour to get to this point. I was exhausted, and threw over my bike to take a sip out of my water bottle. It was almost gone, there was only a small puddle left in the bottom. I was almost over the top— hopefully, this was it. I hauled up my bike, and kept dragging it upwards. The road curved again, and as I crested the hill, the road ended. All that was there was a pile of gravel, and a few scrubby bushes.
* * *
Gibraltar. The day before.
It was late afternoon in Gibraltar, yellow sunshine hazily drifting across the car, as Cameron and I sprawled in the two front seats— my legs propped up on the dash, Cameron’s hanging out the window. We were waiting for Glynn at a bus stop just across the border. We had traveled there on a day trip from Tarifa, and didn’t realize we needed our passports to get into Gibraltar from Spain. Luckily, Cameron and I had ours, but Glynn didn’t, and we had agreed to meet at that spot a couple hours before.
The giant rock of Gibraltar loomed behind us, with the sea reflecting the setting sun to our left. As we sat there reclining in our seats, dozing in the sun, Cameron said, “Do you know what they say, about peaches and coconuts?”
“They say Americans are peaches, soft on the outside but hard on the inside, hard to get to know. Europeans are like coconuts, hard on the outside, but once you’re in, you’re friends for life.”
* * *
Albufeira, Portugal. Two Weeks Ago.
It was late— all the shops had closed on the cobblestone street outside the Pasteleria. The gelato cart sat outside, illuminated by the streetlight just above it, its red awning casting a shadow over the piles of gelato below. Inside, Alex and I sat in the empty cafe, huddled around my laptop, laughing and eating gelato while watching screaming goat videos on YouTube and torrenting the Shining to watch later on at the hostel.
I had met Alex the day before, at Ale-Hop hostel on the coast of Portugal in Albufeira. The hostel was completely empty, and I thought I was alone there until the door opened and Alex walked in. The town was built on cliffs overlooking the sea, and if I leaned out the front window of the dorm room and looked to the right, I could see a cobblestone tunnel leading out onto the sand, and beyond it, the sea. We ended up hanging out and talking about social issues, where we wanted to live, and New York.
My computer was dying, but Alex had found a hidden plug behind the fridge and we had propped it on a shelf to charge. Between mouthfuls of gelato, laughing and talking about life in general, I wouldn’t change a single thing about this moment. I could be anywhere in the world, but I’m in this small town on the coast of Portugal, under this yellow light, in this cafe. And there’s no where else I’d rather be.
* * *
Aljezar, Portugal. Three weeks ago.
Simon and Vicky and I hung out in lounge chairs on the rooftop of the hostel. We had just gotten back from the giant grocery store across the bridge in the small town. I had found a particularly good brand of ramen, and we had stopped by another small shop for a few bottles of wine to split.
Simon, an Aussie with long brown hair and Vicky, a Brit who looked Irish, were traveling together after having met one late night outside a pub in the UK. Apparently Simon had been kicked out of the pub. We sat on the roof, talking about travel and our plans for the future, eating crisps, me with a giant bowl of ramen on my lap.
Later that night, we made dinner together and the hostel became packed. Two German guys had started playing guitar at one of the tables, while the owner of the hostel and two girls who worked there started up a game of Uno in the corner. Music drifted around us as the game became heated, a group of strangers, laughing over who got the ‘draw four’ card, and who might have been peeking at someone else’s cards.
* * *
Lisbon, Portugal. Four weeks ago.
I had just gotten off the plane in Lisbon, and hadn’t slept in two days. Before we landed, I thought there was no way I could possibly put together my bike and ride it out of the airport, being so sleep deprived. But that’s exactly what I did— I was energized at the prospect of finally starting the trip. I saw a sign stating oversized baggage was located at baggage claim three, and when I walked over, there was my bike box just sitting in the corner. I grabbed a cart, wrestled it on top, threw my duffel overtop, and headed for the exit to find a quiet spot to put it all together.
It took me an hour and a half, spinning the wheels to make sure nothing was catching, checking to make sure everything was tight before I loaded it up. When I finished, I wheeled it to the glass doors that opened onto the streets of Portugal. I threw my leg over, and rode it out of the airport.
* * *
Somewhere on the Spanish Coast between Conil de la Frontera and Tarifa
After the road ended on top of the mountain, I turned around. It was all I could do. I biked down the horrifyingly steep road, made my way back up the steep hill the construction worker had directed me to, and biked all the way back through the winding roads until I saw a turnoff for the highway to Tarifa, the highway I was trying to bypass.
I biked 104 kilometers (65 miles) that day. The rest of the ride was a haze of thirstiness and exhaustion. I remember resting on guardrails as trucks and cars whizzed by, wanting to hitchhike but also wanting to make it on my own. Whenever there was a lull in traffic, I would shout things to myself, about hating biking and how the trip sucked, how I’d rather be doing anything than biking. But after the longest 25 miles of my life, I finally rounded a bend in the road, and saw what looked like hundreds of kite-boarders, their kites drifting above the skyline, filling the sky with every color. I had made it to Tarifa.
* * *
I’ve been on the road a month, alternating between busy hostels and quiet campgrounds. I’ve loved biking and I’ve hated it, enjoying the long stretches next to the sea in the sunlight and cursing the giant, endless mountain roads. I’ve been asked why I’m doing the trip, if it’s so hard. I’m doing it because I want to. It may not be easy, or always fun, but that’s what an adventure is. If there’s not a chance of getting lost, there’s no success in finding the way again.
Before I left, I had a series of small meltdowns as I was packing.
“Why am I doing this?” I asked my Mom. “Why do I always do this? I could go to Puerto Rico and hang out on a beach for months, instead I’m flying to Portugal, riding this bike thousands of miles with a million unknowns, why do I do this!? Why can’t I do the easy things?”
“Because,” she said, “It’s who you are.”
Biking through all the different landscapes and miles of road, I’m always thinking about the places I’ve been, but mostly the people I’ve met, the things we’ve said running through my mind like sand. I’m endlessly raking the memories, turning them over to expose new facets, like wet sand on a beach in the morning.
I’m finding small, quiet moments that exist in the cracks of big things. I’m biking up mountains that never seem to end, and finding the downhills. I’m trying to be a coconut instead of a peach. I’m keeping track of moments instead of time, and always I’m biking, biking, slowly making my way to Georgia.