The first time I heard about it was at the end of January. I was talking to Constantine, a guy about my age from Hong Kong on study break. He was worried. I barely even registered what he was talking about, it leaving no trace in my mind.
A week or so after, it came up again. During a phone call with my mother, held in the common area of Zaragoza’s cheapest hostel. I didn’t hesitate for a second, interrupting her: “Phhh, don’t worry about that.” Regardless of the fact that I had only heard a few sentences at that point, my opinion was set in stone, as if it’s been there all along; slumbering, waiting for its time to come out of hiding and strike: “It’s just the media abusing a new toy for its fear mongering.”
No second thoughts. It didn’t exist, only a concept. The media being inconsequential, having no effect on my life. After all, I make a point in not consuming any form of media whatsoever, finally freed from being force-fed the radio all day after quitting my job almost a year ago.
In Barcelona, the people in the hostel joked about it: “Nothing to worry about Bro, it’s just the flu.” and “Only old people die of it.” Behind the joking, a rising discomfort, uncertainty, nervousness. The media had been riding the bandwagon for some time. It started having a noticeable effect, if only a slight one. I had a quick look at the internet, just to make sure. Only seeing what I wanted to see, I got what I wanted. Nothing to worry about. And yet, I suddenly seemed to notice a lot of people coughing.
In Valencia, it invariably came up at some point during the day. One animated conversation held in the hostel kitchen with a charismatic, middle-aged truck driver from Algeria went from conspiracy theories (The US supposedly attacked China with it) to misinformation about how climate affects its ability to spread. In the dining hall, you could almost always overhear one or more table talking about it. Telling shocking, similar sounding horror stories of weddings, funerals or parties and how everyone there got infected by that one person. Those stories always listened to intently, being soaked up, as if feeding something.
That something growing with each passing day, slowly starting to become tangible. I caught myself brooding for the first time. In Milano, they put the entire city under lockdown. What would I do if that happened here? Would the hostel stay open? Of course, nobody could tell. These were uncharted waters. Where would I go if shit hits the fan for real? Those thoughts not truly threatening yet, kept below the surface. After all, Italy is Italy. This is Spain.
On the one hand, feeling above it all – invincible, untouchable, smarter than the rest. I don’t fall for stuff like that. I’m not afraid. On the other, it starting to nestle somewhere inside of me, in places I rarely look, maybe don’t even know exist.
I was sick on and off during that time, the backpacking-lifestyle and a break up taking its toll on my immune system. Worries bubbling up, expanding, bursting every now and again. Is that a rattle in my lung? What if I get it, constantly being exposed to travelers from all over the world? What if it’s bad and I have to go to the hospital? Being alone in a foreign country, not fluent in the language, with questionable health insurance. Those prospects didn’t sound fun at all. Calming myself down. Keep it together, you’re fine.
I wanted to go South, wanted warmth. I’ve meant to do so ever since I left home, but life had different things in store. Now, traveling on my own again after a long time spent traveling with company, I felt the urge to move, to cover larger distances. Warmth also represented safety in mind. Less or no reported cases the further South you went. Seemed to make sense at the time, it being a respiratory issue.
Coinciding inside of me, a growing thirst for something different. For strange people, speaking a strange language, leading a strange life; for a hotter, more extreme climate; for tasting foods I’ve never tasted before. A craving for this slightly terrifying, yet truly exhilarating and energizing feeling of being on your own in a completely foreign, unknown place with no plan, no expectation and no idea of what’s going to happen. Of being on the cusp of endless possibilities. A chance for life becoming condensed, concentrated, intense; everything but right here, right now fading away into nothingness.
And so I went South. Morocco and Western Africa promised to satisfy my desires. There was nothing stopping me, nothing in my way. There was, however, one place I wanted to see on my way down.
I had first heard about Granada from a 40-something guy with balding, unkept hair I met in a hostel in Zaragoza. He had an impressively tiny toiletry bag. It took a day or two before we had an actual conversation, but he caught my eye before that.
Each time I saw him, exchanging a quick “Hello” or locking our eyes for a second across the room, there was something remarkable about him that made me like him – instantly, and without thought. His eyes seemed awake and aware to an unusual degree, yet also calm and centered. He had this glow about him that people get when they are at home in life, regardless of wherever they may be, whatever they may be doing. He looked like someone that was free; not of sadness, struggles or any other “negative” emotions, but free in the sense of being truly alive.
Or that’s what I read into it, at least. I asked him about his story. He had been traveling around Europe for the past seven years. For money, he juggles (or some circus-y thing like that, I don’t remember) at intersections when cars are stopped at red lights. Sort of like busking. That way, he can sustain himself with a few hours of work a day. He stops when he has enough to cover the cost for his dorm bed, food and maybe a beer. I asked about places in Spain he likes. He told me about Granada: A “young” city, not too big, good vibes, beautiful nature, many people that emigrate to live there, an area with special energy. More than enough, I bookmarked it on Maps.me.
Weeks or even months passed, but eventually somebody else would mention it. Every time I heard about it, I became more and more fixated, until the place took on an almost magical allure. Around that time, I became interested in the idea of communal living. And guess what, turns out Granada is known for its hippie communities.
While browsing Hostelworld.com, I also saw a newly opened hostel with rock climbing right in its own back garden, situated in a small village just outside Granada. From the pictures and reviews, it gave a cozy, homey impression surrounded by lots of nature. After more than a month of city-life, of crowded sidewalks and waiting for red lights to turn at pedestrian crossings, this sounded like bliss.
I was looking for a spot to wind down and digest the past months before embarking on the next part of my journey. Time for myself to be, think and reflect combined with a physical activity I had tremendously enjoyed before leaving home. That seemed like a routine I could get into, for a little while at least. I bookmarked the hostel on Maps.me.
Hitching out of Valencia wasn’t all that easy. After getting up relatively early, eating breakfast – consisting of overnight oats with a mashed banana and leftover pasta from the free dinner provided by the hostel the night before – I started walking to a spot I had looked up on Hitchwiki.org. It was a big roundabout with a gas station next to it, on the southern outskirts of the city.
Upon arriving, some 40 minutes later, I wasn’t exactly ecstatic, for the roundabout was indeed big, three lanes big. That meant I could only stop cars on the outermost lane, missing out on a large chunk of traffic. All the exhaust fumes and the fact that there was no shade to hide from the rising sun made it an easy choice; The gas station it was. I ambled over to it and sat down, observing the scene.
There were two employees handling the petrol stations, which made me a bit wary. It meant I had to be smart and discreet about asking for rides, for they could send me away at any point if I became too irritating to them or the drivers. I decided to be selective about asking for rides, not only because of the employees but also simply because I felt lazy and not in the mood to talk to or engage with other fellow humans. Sitting there, watching cars trickle in and out, I quickly noticed I wasn’t particularly motivated to get up and do anything at all.
So I just sat there for a while, not doing anything, watching people coming and going, somewhere at a gas station in Spain, a couple of hours before noon on some weekday, no idea how, when or even if I was going to get further south today. My mind started drifting, a relaxed and rather pleasant questioning of life: What was I doing? Not here in specific, but in general; what was I doing in a bigger sense?
A thought struck me: What would I have been doing right now a year ago? What did my life look like then? I went over a typical work day (Or should I just say a typical day, for work days make up five of our seven days, don’t they?), a typical day at the office, the typical thing I would have been doing around this time of the day, the typical thoughts and feelings I would have had right now.
A huge grin lit up my face. A deep serenity washed over me, coloring everything. Nothing had to be different, nothing had to be changed. Everything was the way it is, perfect. And I was part of it. So, I just sat there, not doing anything, watching people coming and going, somewhere at a gas station in Spain, a couple of hours before noon…
After about two hours I changed spots. The gas station wasn’t working. In the end, one of the gas station employees gently made me understand that I had overstayed my welcome. I took it as a sign and made off, glad to be moving, even though I didn’t know where I was going.
I picked a service station on the big, national highway as my next spot. It did take some work to get to: Another 40 minutes of walking, a subway ride out of the city, and another hour and a half of walking through the fertile fields outside of Valencia. The latter walk did prove to be quite pleasant though, despite the 2 o’clock sun reigning supreme over everything. It took me through lush fields of mandarin and orange trees and quaint countryside villages.
Sometimes Spain has the capacity to vividly reminded me of Croatia. Walking past these sleepy villages did just that. It took me back to the countless vacations spent there with my mother as a kid and teenager during summer break. The feeling during the heavy quiet of midday-heat in those tiny countryside villages with their small, peculiarly-built houses, so common all along the Mediterranean coast. These instances kindling an intense longing. For what exactly though? Roots? Belonging? Home? Or maybe it’s not about any of these elusive things, but about childhood. About a place that only exists in memories anymore.
There was a staggering amount of citrus fruit, true abundance. A lot of them just lying on the ground. I helped myself to some. They were absolutely delicious. Among them was the best orange I have ever eaten in my entire life. Do you know the feeling of food being so good that it just shuts down your entire brain except for the oldest, most reptilian part of it? When what you’re eating completely absorbs you, when you forget about everything around you, even about yourself; when you become eating. That’s how good this orange was. I remember it fondly every now and again.
After some delay (Thanks to all the delightful fruit) I got to my destination. There was a surprising number of trucks around, at least 30. Most of the drivers were in their cabin. I have always wanted to hitch a ride in one of those big trucks, but so far traveling as a couple made it impossible (for they only have one extra seat).
I have to admit, I was/am a bit intimidated by truckers. For a long time, I actually wanted to be one. And not only as a kid, even just a couple of years ago, I used to regularly fantasize about being a trucker during my morning commute to work. I did eventually come to see that I might be romantizing the whole thing a bit, but something about driving for hours on end to a foreign country, listening to music, not having to deal with self-entitled customers or difficult coworkers made me really wistful. Then there is also this fascination I have with the whole “trucker-scene”. They seem to form this special group of people, sharing their own codes, values and rules, almost living in their own world, parallel to the rest of us.
Now was my chance. I went from truck to truck, asking for Granada, Murcia or Alicante. With each rejection, I became more confident. Regardless of their answers, the mere interaction was enough to lift my spirit. I had had quite a day already, showing resolve, effort and ingenuity to get here. And I knew this spot would work, eventually.
It did. Unfortunately, it wasn’t with a trucker. The dream lives on though, one day… Two young Algerians, driving an old family van with a french license plate, picked me up. Speaking neither proper Spanish nor French made communication difficult. I was glad when the ride was over, for they really seemed to be in a hurry. I can’t deny that going 180 kilometres an hour with half open windows (no kidding), all the while blasting some Arabic pop/rap at incredible volume (presumably to keep the driver awake), is quite the experience, but I’m not dying to repeat it anytime soon.
They dropped me off on the periphery of Alicante. I started walking into the centre, a recurring occurrence which I’ve grown to like; walking into cities from their edges. I feel like it gives a more complete, honest picture of it. Seeing what it’s like where no one bothers to look, where no one cares. It was evening, still pleasantly warm, the sun slowly setting, bathing the city in a light orange.
I used this chance to stock up on some groceries in one of the big supermarkets situated on the outskirt, use their wi-fi to look for accommodation and use their toilet. With the first two objectives completed, I found myself finishing up on my number two in the bathroom when I noticed that there’s no more toilet paper left. We’ve all been there.
Now, what do you do? It’s not like you’re at home or at a friend’s place. Your abroad and alone (and maybe a little scared). I’ll help: The first thing you do is remain calm, the key to handling any emergency. Take two slow, deep breaths. Clear thinking, pragmatism and a certain kind of ruthlessness is what’s going to get you out of it. Back to the situation at hand.
Assess your surroundings: The men’s bathroom only has one toilet. There’s no tissue paper, only a hand dryer. The next step is clear. You get up, slowly pull up your pants (Not quite all the way though, for obvious reasons), awkwardly shuffle your way out of there and check the woman’s bathroom for the holy grail that toilet paper suddenly has become. You hope that no one’s out in the hallway because you don’t want to be seen while you’re in this rather vulnerable situation, you hope that the women’s bathroom is empty and that no one occupies the men’s bathroom while your out on your mission. It’s a risk you’re taking, but you’re undeterred because it’s the only way; it has to be done.
Thankfully, the women’s bathroom is free. Don’t get too excited though, for a quick scan reveals that it is also out of toilet paper. However, you don’t give in to anger or panic; you don’t start cursing or letting that sensation in the pit of your stomach freeze you up. Instead, you keep functioning, you keep going, because you have to.
You retreat to the men’s bathroom, familiar ground, and regroup. You go over your options, two possibilities come to your mind: Either A) You go outside, face all the people in the grocery store, try to find a clerk and somehow communicate what’s going on and what you need, or B) you say fuck it and wash your ass in the sink with your hand and dry it using the hand dryer (Which requires some creative yoga-like body positioning to get the angles right). I know what I did, no shame. You tell me what you’d do.
The first sign I encountered that something might not be alright was in Alicante, the day before I left. I went shopping for groceries at Mercadona, one of Spain’s largest supermarket chains. Inexplicably, they were out of a lot of stuff. Whole Milk, Beans, other legumes and fresh produce were all low or sold out. I figured it must’ve just been a mismanaged branch. In hindsight, the vibe did feel off, stressed and on edge.
The next morning, I got up and took a bus to my hitchhiking spot. Granada was now only a four-hour drive away. I had no clue what was about to happen. Not checking the news and staying at a hostel with only a handful of other people I rarely ever saw, I simply wasn’t aware. Like an ostrich putting its head in the sand. This would prove to be my last day of hitching before everything changed.
A young, jovial construction worker, a danish expat working in tourism accompanied by a cute dog, a firefighter that likes to climb in his free time and a master’s student with Iranian roots on exchange from Ecuador later, I was there. It was a long day, I had to wait for all those lovely people. Yet, it felt like I was floating along, unhurried.
Hitchhiking can be stressful. It can also feel extremely liberating, depending on your attitude. I find it takes a trust in life, a knowledge of yourself and an openness to experience. You’re running out of daylight stuck at a service station in the middle of nowhere? No worries, you’ve got your house, bed and kitchen (Tent, sleeping pad and bag, gas stove and a bag of your preferred source of carbohydrates) in your backpack. It doesn’t matter if no one picks you up. You’re not running out of anything. The constant struggle against time becomes meaningless. Waiting, simple being, becomes pleasurable.
In Granada, everything happened quickly. Drake would say 0 to a 100 real quick.
Over the span of two nights, the hostel, which was home to around 50 people when I arrived, almost completely emptied. Face masks started becoming common. Basic foodstuffs were harder to come by. There were less and less tourists frequenting the gift shops. Nobody talked about anything else. It started permeating everything.
On Thursday, everything was fine. On Saturday evening, a nationwide lockdown was announced, coming into effect on Monday. All stores, except for supermarkets and pharmacies, would stay closed. Nobody was allowed outside, except to go to said stores.
It was here. Finally catching up with me, with everyone, starting to have undeniable consequences.
What is it? Crudely speaking, most people on earth are unaffected by the virus itself. As of today, close to five million people have been infected. The dark figure is obviously much higher, but if people aren’t aware that they’re infected, are they affected? Those five million people make up less than 0.01% of the entire human population.
Plagues have been a part of human life ever since the agricultural revolution changed our way of life. Everybody has heard about the black death, ravaging Europe in the 14th century. It claimed an estimated 75 to 200 Million lives. That’s 30% to 60% of Europe’s population at the time. Think about that. In less than ten years, somewhere around half of all people (in Europe) died.
In 1519, the Spanish reached Mexico. At the time, the native population was numbered at 22 Million. Due to lacking immunity to common European diseases, the population was devastated by epidemics, and dwindled to 2 Million people over the course of the century. 22 Million to 2 Million. Let that sink in for a moment.
To me, it is fear. An unprecedented outbreak of fear that not only infected our private minds, our personal, intimate thoughts and feelings, but also the entire system in which we live in and which we rely on. That is what has affected us all. That is what changed the world, our daily lives, to a degree a lot of people alive today have never experienced before.
The way we handled this situation and the resulting consequences raise a lot of questions: How fragile is the world we live in? Are our political and economic systems ripe for a critical evaluation? Does our current way of living make sense?
Humanity has never been this connected. The past months have shown that clearly enough. People from all over the globe depend on each other, share increasingly similar struggles, the same problems. It affects us regardless of borders, nationality, religion, race or wealth. And in that, I can’t help but to see a chance for us to come even closer together. For the big challenges of our time won’t be solved by a government, an organisation or a company, but by all of us working together. You and me. What do we want?
On Saturday, my mind was racing: What should I do? Where could I go, where can I stay? There were a few options, but only one felt right, only one happened.
I got to Solana de Granada, the climbing hostel, the next day, on Sunday, the day before the lockdown started. I had no idea that it would be home for the next months.
It would be the place where I shared meals, laughter and tears. The place where I experienced many new things, where I met, got to know and lived with a handful of unique and beautiful people. The place where I went through rough times and had extraordinarily wonderful times. The place where I got to know myself yet a little better.
My time here was defined by many things, but nothing shaped it, gave it color, texture and flavor, as much as the people staying here. You don’t experience something like this everyday: Literally being locked in with seven other strangers, random people you never met before, most of them being in the same situation as you. And just when I was getting interested in communal living. Life finds a way.
This situation gave me a chance to experience another way of living, to taste what communal living can be like, how beautiful and challenging it can be. And it made me appreciate once more just how important strong relationships with other people are.
I want to thank all the people that have made this time what it is. Thanks to Hannah. Thanks to Rob. Thanks to Maddy (Shoutout for the MacBook on which all of this was written). Thanks to Liz. Thanks to Mike. Thanks to Alzhara. And a special thanks to Edu and Miri for opening their doors and sharing their home with us, for providing this safe haven, for making it all possible.
I learned so much from all these people, from our many fruitful talks, late night discussions, cooking sessions, arguments and from simply being with them and seeing how they live life. I’ll always fondly remember the workouts, charade games, hikes, farts, chess games, climbing and especially the family dinners.
I am very glad to have been stuck here with you for all this time. Thanks.
PS: Maddy made a video about our time here: https://youtu.be/fi77rWx5ziY
And thanks to you for reading. Writing this has been challenging, frustrating, stressful, extremely fun, satisfying and fulfilling all at the same time.
A big reason for me to keep coming back to this, to writing, is the feedback I receive from you guys. Each time – no matter how small or insignificant you think it might be – I hear from you that you liked it, miss it, whatever, it makes my day. I can’t stress enough how important this is as a source of motivation. Thank you, sincerely.