Night Train to Barcelona and Exploring the City

10:30 PM. San Sebastian, Spain. Waiting for my first overnight train of the trip. Sitting across me from in the waiting area is a guy who looks like the worst possible crossbreed of Hitler, Fidel Castro, and Santa Claus. He scared the shit out of me and I prayed he wouldn’t be on my train. He wasn’t.

The train arrived late (this isn’t Switzerland or Germany) and after boarding I spent the next four hours trying not to fall asleep. The first leg of the overnight was in a regular seat thus my bags weren’t secured. I listened to an audiobook and some music. At 2:05 AM we pulled into Burgos, Spain, I fought my way through drunk old men blocking the door, and jumped out into the deserted railway station.Trainstation

The only other inhabitants at this hour in Burgos were two Chicago 20-somethings who’ve been on the road for a month. Except, they looked like student backpackers. We chatted. They’ve been sleeping in random hostels, parks, hills, beaches, vans. They had big beards and dirty feet. Nice guys, for sure, but I discovered that they are real student backpackers. I’m an entrepreneur and blogger who happens to be wearing a backpack. I’ve had the luxury of avoiding hostels (until Spain), I’ve been meeting people according to a schedule, and when necessary, I’ve checked into a low priced hotel. The whole student backpacker look of one-too-many-showers-in-a-communal-bathroom and never-plan-ahead-part-of-the-fun-is-the-crazy-stories-of-sleeping-on-beach don’t jibe with me.

Anyway, the night train bound for Barcelona arrived, I boarded, and navigated to my car. The conductor opened the locked door and I found six bunk beds, with one open. I climbed the ladder into the middle bunk on the right side, threw my big backpack behind the ladder and kept my small daypack (with laptop!) at my side on my bunk bed. The bed was soft, with a pillow and blanket. The train roared away from the stop and as I lay there, scrunched up on my little bunk bed, I took pleasure in the exotic nature of the trip. I fell asleep and woke up throughout the night and was awoken for good at around 7 AM when the conductor opened our door and woke up one of the passengers whose stop it was. I groaned from my bunk, "Cuantas horas a Barcelona?" He responded, "Dos horas y media."

At the Barcelona stop a weary, sleep-deprived, unshowered Ben stumbles into the train station. New destination: Hostal Centric to meet my close friend from school Austin. I must admit I couldn’t wait to meet him. I’ve been living out of a backpack for a month knowing virtually no one; I’ve stayed with new friends and friends of friends but no one who I have known already (outside of a week in Germany w/ my Mom).

An hour later I opened the door to our clean, surprisingly professional hostel room and found Austin waiting. We were both exhausted — he from his flight from San Francisco and me from the overnight train and just generally being on the road for a hell of a long time. Throughout the course of the day our sense of place and time detoriated to dangerous levels. In any event, it was great to meet him and we set out by foot to explore the main street – La Rumbla – in Barcelona, said to be the most famous street in Spain. We walked along the waterfront, explored different side streets, and just generally take in this supposedly un-Spanish city by the ocean.Both_us_wter

But I was distracted by something else: food. I hadn’t eaten since 7 PM the previous night. I had gone from 7 PM to 1:30 PM on nothing but a Cliff Bar. This may be the longest time I’ve ever gone without a meal in my life. Oddly enough after awhile my hunger simply dissapated, and the objects in front of me turned to mush and I focused on left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.

We lay in the park, checked out the famous cathedral in Barcelona, watched some break dancers, searched for water (a Herculian task) and then walked back to an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet for dinner. I spotted one on our walk and told Austin we had to eat there. I was shocked such a concept existed in Europe (first one I’ve seen) and was ready to do some serious carbo loading. The food was good, filling, and I sneaked out a couple bananas and fruit for our room.

¡Hasta luego!

One Picture is in Berlin. The Other in San Sebastian. Can You Tell Which is Which?

One city embraces the ball and hoop with gusto, the other leaves the net in shambles.
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Mysterycity1

Days 29 and 30: San Sebastian, Spain

This leg of my trip is noteworthy for it did *not* entail: planning.

As I prepared for my trip, many friends and blog readers told me, "Don’t over plan! Give yourself flexibility! Let yourself change your mind on the road! Enjoy it!" I decided to listen to these people to an extreme the past few days, and generally am happy I only decided to implement such advice for this short leg.

I had a plane ticket from Rome to Santander, Spain and nothing else. I had a night train in three days reserved. That meant I had 2.5 days and 2 nights when I’d have to figure my shit out on-the-fly. It’s definitely do-able if you’re that kind of person, but as someone who likes agendas and organization, it was a hassle.

I arrived in Santander, wandered over to the tourist desk, and asked in more words than these a very blunt question to the woman: "Give me an honest answer. Is it worth staying here in Santander for a night or should I just go to San Sebastian?" She vouched for Santander, but it didn’t convince me. I bought a bus ticket that left a couple hours later (buses are bigger than trains in Spain) and gobbled down a late lunch at a wi-fi equipped cafe.

Sunday evening I set foot in San Sebastian: a) I had no map, b) I knew nothing about the city, c) I had no hotel/hostel reservation, d) I had no phone, e) I had no contacts. So there, plan-ahead naysayers, are you happy now?!  Such circumstances led me to start a search for a low-cost hotel by foot. There was a fancy looking place across the street from the bus depot. I inquired on a price, deemed it too expensive, but took note of the ballmark as a benchmark. I then wandered the streets of San Sebastian for a full hour. I had a hard time finding anything amidst the heavy crowds of old people (it’s a hot getaway beach resort town), let alone a place that had a room. Everything booked, or either too disgusting or too fancy. Hungry, tired, thirsty, and low on sleep from the night before, I trekked back to Fancy Hotel by Bus Depot and bit the bullet.
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Upon checking into my room, I immediately became enamored by the ammenities that awaited me. The bathroom was stocked with "bath milk" (in addition to bath gel, shampoo, and other standards), after-shave cream, and other goodies. It even came with a super-zoom shaving mirror, something I didn’t even know existed until I had "The Best Shave of My Life" in Cologne, Germany.

The next morning I discovered the true gastronomic Spanish treat — Tapas. At least I think I was eating Tapas. A "bar" (the kind that serves alcohol) had instead a smorgasboard of various finger foods, but about 200 times better than conventional American cocktail hour finger food. Simply wonderful food. These are scattered all throughout San Sebastian.

The rest of my morning was searching for a cheaper hotel; I found one through the tourist office, moved in, and then had the afternoon to actually explore what San Sebastian is all about, namely beaches and quant streets. I lay on the beach for a couple hours. I love beaches, but dealing with the sand afterwards is a real bitch.
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I walked around "old town." You know — all "old towns" in Europe are starting to look the same. (Same with churches and cathdrals.) At around 5 PM I opened up my laptop to do some offline work and discovered, much to my great joy, that this less-expensive hotel had free wi-fi. This may not sound like a lot, but for me it’s among life’s greatest feelings. I anxiously caught up on all the backlogged emails, blogging, and the like. Most of the trip I’ve had to do pay wi-fi, and every time I do so, I get drenched in sweat as I see the clock tick and knowing I’m paying $.12/hour. (My partner Dave told me on Skype last night that this is an irrational reaction, and I respond that we are irrational beings.)

Today I slept in, went for a run on the beach, checked out of my hotel at noon, and the rain promptly came down in bucketfulls to destroy any attempt at a "relaxing walk around town" in the afternoon. Thus, I’ve been confined to the dry lobby of this hotel where I am still enjoying the free wi-fi (yes, it actually is — ok, was — raining, I’m not in here just to use the web).

My night train leaves tonight for Barcelona. Will I be able to go to sleep, or will paranoia about someone stealing my shit not let me? We shall see.

Call CTU San Sebastian NOW

I’m sitting in Rome Ciampino airport. I notice a young woman near me in the terminal because she’s reading The Kite Runner, an excellent book. She also looks American.

I go to stand in line at the gate. I’m first in line because I’m intent on boarding first and getting exit row. (Little did I know I was first in line for the shuttle to go to our waiting plane in the middle of a runway…these no-frills airlines do it their own way…) This same young woman gets out of her seat 10 minutes later and stands behind me in line, #2.

We land in Santander, Spain, an unremarkable town with a little airport. I head off to the tourism desk to figure out how to get to San Sebastian. I get a ticket to a bus that leaves in a couple hours, so to kill the time grab lunch at a cafe that happens to have free wi-fi (what luck!).

I board the bus to San Sebastian in the afternoon. Wouldn’t you know it, this young lady is also on this bus. The same bus as me going to the same small town in Spain coming from the same small town in Spain!

After arriving in San Sebastian I don’t see her again. We go our separate ways. Until….today….on the beach. It seems we both “settled down” in San Sebastian for a couple days and both happened to pick the same beach for an afternoon tanning session. Yes, after rolling out my towel, there’s the woman, still reading Kite Runner, sitting only a stone’s throw away.

Look, I believe in randomness, but is this too weird? Yes. I need CTU San Sebastian NOW! Jack Bauer help me! I don’t want to talk to her because that may tip her off and she’ll instead send some other agent (or crazed blog reader?) to follow me who I won’t recognize.

I should note that while writing this post I was IM’ing with my fearless mentor Brad Feld, whose advice was, “Don’t forget, you’re bigger than them.” He is right about that. If I see this chick tomorrow on my night train to Barcelona, I’m going to ask no questions and just go Chuck Norris on her.