Here’s an excerpt from an earlier version of Cheers, Beers, and Eastern Promise. Originally, I had a very long introduction full of stories that created the basis of who I was when I chose to move to Taiwan. I hope you enjoy it:
The more I travel, the more I never, ever want to stop. There’s so much out there. So much to learn. So much to experience. So much to discover about life and living. Traveling refocuses essentials of my life and teaches me new imperatives for living. And the most meaningful lessons I’ve ever experienced have always come from the least likely sources, in the least likely places, and, many times, as a result of some of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.
I got lost in Extremadura, a region that’s a few hours north of Seville. We went there on a school trip during my study abroad. School sponsored trips were amazing – our tuition was all-inclusive: buses, hotels, tours, dinners, everything. This was important – we were all poor; it was college. No one had any money. Even people from money didn’t have money. We scraped, we saved, we bargained. We did without. We made friends.
We thrived on the adventures that came from being young, poor, and irresponsible because we were bold, adroit, and carefree.
There were fifty-five of us. Fifty-five young kids. Twenty and twenty-one year old kids in Spain. Having left Seville early in the morning, most of us were slightly drunk from the night before – we rarely came home before 5am. The bus ride acted as our recovery, our rest. In the late morning, we arrived in what was once Lusitania, an integral piece of the Roman Empire.
We slowly disembarked from the bus, shielded our eyes from the sun, and staggered through the first steps. But once we had our balance back, it was on to exploration. Roman ruins. Ancient amphitheaters. Crumbling stones that once housed an empire that ruled the earth.
A tour guide led us through history, a brief lunch, and more history. It was educational to say the least. We were looking at a Roman theatre that was over 2000 years old – built before the start of our modern calendar. A decade and a half before Jesus Christ was born. And the building was still standing.
Not only was it still standing, it was still used; the annual Festival of Classical Drama is held there. We wandered, quietly chatted, and took in the air, the scent of the place – it was thick, humid, heavy. The smells were many. Circling winds carried dewy grasses, fragrant trees, mixed lunches of varied bocadillos, which were Spain’s version of hoagies. They held eggs, potatoes, cheeses, meats, fresh bread and more.
Onward we went. The tour continued but nothing else was so captivating as the amphitheater that was so alive. The other ruins were broken down, lost to time.
The day finished and the hotel awaited.
Living in Spain was amazing. I couldn’t ever say anything bad about living in Spain. But I can tell you that hot showers were a rarity. And we arrived in the midst one of the coldest winters Spain had ever seen; it snowed. Not in Seville. But it snowed. Madrid, Barcelona, northern Spain – they had snow. Everyone reacted like it was the end of the world as the streets resounded with “Hace frio, hace tan frio!” It’s cold, it’s so cold!
It was certainly cold, but coming from the Northeastern United States made it not seem so bad, except for one thing: the lack of indoor heating. The houses didn’t have heat. No heat. At all. At best, some people had small space heaters that helped only slightly. Slightly. The homes in Seville were not built to keep out the cold; the homes in Seville were built to seal it in against the 50-degree centigrade summers. Stepping outside in the summertime was like walking into a furnace. An all-encompassing, inescapable furnace that burned to the core. It was suffocating. But that was the summer.
In the winters with minimal to no hot water, showering was difficult: turn it on, get wet, turn it off, soap up, turn it on, rinse, turn it off again, done. That was it.
I’m an indulgent American – I like my showers. In fact, I love my showers. I love hot water; it’s relaxing. I can sit back and rinse away the dirt of the day. It’s peaceful. It’s refreshing. It’s something I need. I think it’s something many people need. And many people were on my program.
The discussion on the bus to the hotel raged over what the showers would be like. Were they hot? Were they roomy? Would there be a sprayer? Would the pressure be good? Or would it be a trickle? I hope they’re hot! They have to be hot! Endlessly hot! And it continued…
After two hours of settling into our rooms and freshening up for dinner, everywhere was a stir over the showers. Great water pressure, great heat, great space – they were…great. And so, the night started off well. A day of learning, the great showers, and on to a succulent dinner – everything was perfect, everything was good. The world was in order.
Being a town of 91,000, Caceres offered some nightlife, and we found it. The night was typical. We gathered, we pre-gamed, we bar-hopped, we danced. We wandered the streets and eventually returned home.
The morning came all too quickly. Sharing my room with a random person from an adjoined program for this trip, I heard his alarm going off well before it was time to awake. I rolled over. This strange kid got up, mumbled something incoherent, packed his bags, and was gone within ten minutes.
Good riddance. I had an hour more to sleep.
Eventually, the alarm went off, it was still too early, and I hit snooze. Just once. Jumping up, I took a quick shower, got dressed, and gathered the few things I had with me. Looking back, I saw nothing left behind and continued through the door.
Vacuums. Every room. Every room had vacuums. Why did every room have vacuums?
I stopped and thought. I was running a little late – maybe the maids here are really on the ball. I sprinted downstairs, went outside, and looked around. I didn’t see anyone. At all. Not one person. Anywhere. But they couldn’t have left me behind. Impossible. I grabbed my phone. There were missed calls. Five missed calls. Why were there five missed calls?
My buddy Christina – I called her back. They have to be around here somewhere. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Umm, where are you guys?”
“On the bus.”
“Where’s the bus?”
“What? We’re on the first bus.”
“Okay where’s the second bus?”
“Christina, I don’t see the buses.”
“What do you mean you don’t see the buses? You’re on the second bus.”
“Uh, no, I am most certainly not on the second bus.”
“Are you serious?”
“Uh, yes, I am 100% serious. Did you guys leave?”
Her laughter blasted through the phone. “Yeah, we left.”
I couldn’t help but laugh along. “Oh, Jesus. How long ago did you leave?”
“Like an hour and a half.”
“An hour and a half ago!? How the hell did you leave an hour and a half ago?”
“We left at nine like the schedule said.”
“No Christina, you guys must have left at eight. It’s 9:30 now.”
“No, it’s 10:30, Gerry.” She paused. “Oh my God! Dude, they rolled the clocks back last night! Didn’t anyone tell you!?”
“No, Christina, no one told me. I’m standing outside the hotel. They turned the clocks back? I didn’t know they did that here. Isn’t it next week anyway?”
“Yeah, in the US it’s next week. In Spain, it’s this weekend. Uh-oh, looks like you’re in some trouble. Here let me pass you off to Louisa.”
“Hey, Louisa, Esta Gerry. Estoy perdido.”
“Hi Lucia, I’m at the hotel.”
“What? Oh no – the hotel?”
“Yes, the hotel. What should I do.”
“Get a bus.”
“Okay. Where are you going?”
“Merida. We will sightsee, have dinner, and return to Seville.”
“Okay, so I have to hurry.”
“Yes, Gerry, this will be an early dinner. Please hurry or you will have to find your own way back to Seville.”
The phone died. Dead. Nothing. Dead. I had no numbers and no charger. Carrying the charger for the weekend didn’t work out – I’d forgotten it at home. It didn’t seem to matter. I was going to be with the tour the whole time. With all my friends. With both the buses.
But now everyone was gone. I had no means of communication. And my only hope for meeting up was to find the tour group in Merida, a city of 56,000. It couldn’t be that hard, right?
The hotel assisted me with finding the bus station. They gave me a map, and I walked. It wasn’t too far. Maybe a twenty-minute walk. I started out and arrived quickly.
It was desolate. It didn’t look like buses ever ran through there. No matter, the hotel had assured me there were buses to Merida that would get me there in time. One bus, at 3 o’clock. That was the bus. That was my bus.
I walked up to the window, asked for the ticket, and pulled out my wallet. “Tres y cincuenta.” 3.50 Euro.
I opened my wallet. I looked deeply into my wallet. I looked longingly into my wallet. It was empty. I had nothing and no one was around. Anywhere. Yet again, I’d gotten myself into a ridiculous and unnecessary predicament. How? How did things like this always happen to me? With no money and no plan, I sat, I read, and I waited. Someone had to come at some point. And finally someone did.
An old man. A very old man. A man who had the look of having lived through difficult Franco years. A farm worn man who had struggled through every year since. Knobby hands, tattered overalls, a shirt that used to be white, a mild beard that matched the rest of his haggard appearance.
This was the only person I’d seen in three hours. Three hours? Not a soul. It was a quiet Sunday – no one was around.
Was I really going to ask this man for money? I’m obviously wasn’t from there and I certainly didn’t look like someone who should be asking for money. Though I made a sloppy appearance in clothing and hair, my clothes were in excellent condition, I was clean, and I was carrying a nice, new backpack. How could it be that I didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket?
As I sat there and contemplated, he approached and sat down next to me. “Hola,” he said in a raspy tone.
“Hola, que tal?” Hello, how is it?
“Bien, bien, y tu?” Well, well, and you?
“What brings you here stranger.”
“I was here with my language program, sightseeing the area.”
“Good. And what do you think?”
“It’s beautiful. Really beautiful. The modern architecture, the ancient architecture – it’s very impressive. I had no idea Extremadura was so rich in culture and art.”
“Extremadura – it has a rich history. I’m glad you enjoyed.”
He paused. “You look troubled my friend.”
“Oh, do I? No, I’m okay.”
“Are you? You look lost.”
“And how did you get lost.”
I told him my story.
“That is quite a story. But you are young and exuberant; these things happen. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“No, my friend, things will always work out. You must trust in the good nature of humankind. Though sometimes it fails, more often than not it will come through in fortunate ways. People are innately good. Trust in this. If you believe and trust in this one simple thing, your world will be better. You will see things differently. Even when things are bad. For example, some would call mine a hard life. Granted, things did not always go my way. But I would never change my life. Life is a wonderful blessing. Had I not had my experiences, I wouldn’t be me. I would be someone else. Appreciate those around you, even if you don’t know them, and believe. This world holds more than you, my young friend, could ever imagine. Believe.”
He stood up, grasped my shoulder, and looked in my eyes. I didn’t know what to say. His eyes locked with mine. I saw in his eyes complete benevolence. The purest, most radiant compassion and goodness beamed from his surprisingly youthful eyes. He stepped away and I was left with my thoughts.
A minute later, he returned to the bench I was seated on, patted me on the knee, and held something out to me. It was the ticket. The ticket that I didn’t have enough money to buy. The ticket that I omitted from my story.
“My friend at the window there said you couldn’t afford your ticket. Here it is.”
As I started to thank him, he waved a hand to silence my bumbling words.
“Remember what I told you,” he said. “And that will be thanks enough. Remember.”
He stood up, walked away, and looked back with a wave one last time before turning a corner and vanishing from my life as quickly as he’d entered it.
Believe in the goodness of people? I couldn’t believe more in anything else.
This wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time, that I encountered such altruism as I’ve traveled. That man saved my day. Had I not been able to catch that bus, I would have been stuck in Merida with nowhere near the 11.90 Euro it cost to reach Seville. That man was a godsend. I made it back, reunited with the group, and traveled back to Seville with each and every word that man said engrained on my heart and mind forever.
Without traveling, I never would have had that experience. Without traveling, I never would have had countless experiences that have changed my life, making it forever better. And landing in San Francisco, I was traveling once more: to learn, to grow, to experience.