Wanderlust: Spain

I’m not entirely sure why I chose Spain as the first European country I visited, but that’s where my parents and I went in the summer of 2015. It was more of a whim really, or maybe my brain though it’d be best to start somewhere where at least I speak the language (other than English, of course).

Seville Aqueduct System
Segovia aqueduct system

This trip was a truly spectacular adventure, as for the first time, instead of depending on friends or family to help us out, we traversed the land all on our own, renting a car and everything. In Madrid, we used public transportation to get around the city, visiting museums, gardens, and castles. We got to spend one day hitting up Barrio de las Letras, which is a neighborhood where famous writers of the past, like Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega, resided when they lived. The storyteller in me couldn’t resist the call of those narrow alleys and old apartments, seeing how my ancestors once lived.

Night 2 in Madrid was spent being sent to a speak easy performance of a flamenco show. We didn’t know it was a speak easy/secret until we got there. We’d been sent tickets by a local restaurant owner who’d taken a liking to us as we patroned his place the first 2 nights in the country because it was right around the corner from our hotel. Going up to the hidden vendor inside the venue to be shown a secret entrance made me feel like I’d gone back in time to the prohibition era. The show was spectacular, as we all sat together in the dark, the only light coming from the halo around the dancer.

On day 3 we packed up our suitcases and took our rental out to the Spain highways, where we couldn’t quite read all the signs and made a bit of an error getting off our exit. Thankfully traffic in the area was nothing like it is here in Miami, and my dad had the chance to hit reverse and go the right way.

The next stop was Segovia, where we marveled at the aqueducts the people living there had made so long ago still holding up. We didn’t do anything to touristy here, as it was a pause on our way to visit an old friend of my dad’s who lived in Jaen. But that didn’t stop us from taking in the scenery and just walking the city’s streets, playing the part of the local even though we were foreigners.

We then doubled back to Toledo, where my alma mater followed me, as there were knights galore. Suits of armor decorated almost every establishment we entered. My favorite though was the cobbled streets and box alleys. Everything about Spain’s architecture and infrastructure was narrow and confined, but we never felt imprisoned (though we did nearly crash with a local driver later on). My dad and I took a ghost tour of the streets of Toledo, hearing the legends and lore that are the lifeblood of any town.

I can’t even count how many times we got lost on our adventures in Spain, but each wrong turn took us to new wonders. We found an old monastery up a hill that looked like we’d drop over the edge at any moment before finally leveling out. I picked grapes from the building’s vines, hoping no one was around to see my minor sin of theft.

Stolen grapes

In need of a place to stay the night during one of our lost moments, we found a beautiful hideaway, called La Casa de los Siete Cielos (The House of 7 Skies). Set inside a mountain cavern system and with a rooftop pool and garden, we truly couldn’t have asked for a better place to get lost.

In our search for the famous windmills of Campo de Criptana we accidentally wandered into La Mancha instead, a land best known from Cervante’s work of Don Quixote. We visited the Don’s windmills and then wound our way through the tiny streets of the town below to spend the night among the author’s people. Winding down on our last days, we found a museum dedicated to Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s love interest in the story.

Truth be told, it’s hard to remember every single thing that happened, because Spain was not a followed itinerary adventure. It was truly a trip filled with unexpected findings and wandering an unknown land, discovering it without constraints.

Where have you all traveled unplanned? Let me know in the comments!

Wanderlust: Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador, 2011. Photo by Meagan Kimberly

In August 2011  I visited my father’s home country of Ecuador for the first time. I remember my excitement when I booked the airplane tickets for my dad, my mom, and me. Then the day came and boarding the plane to leave the country for the first time turned my stomach in the best way possible. As we approached the green mountains of Quito and flew in between the peaks to get to the city’s airport, the rain drops drizzled down the open plane window and I stopped breathing, our aircraft tilting to fit in the middle and avoid the most turbulence.

We were picked up by an old family member whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years and suddenly I remembered the way he used to make me laugh at family holiday parties. My first time in my father’s country and I felt like I’d come home, my heart recognizing right away that the air I breathed and soil I walked on flowed through my veins. My father’s first time back in his home country in over 30 years and the part of his soul he’d thought long dormant came alive once more.

As we weaved our way through rain and traffic, in and out of road lanes, up and down hills, I realized why Miami drivers act the way they do. The lanes were more like guidelines. Cars honked and motorists yelled at one another just like in any other big city. Buses and taxis ruled the roadways, knowing their public status gave them the most leeway in erratic navigation.

The first day we took the bus around the city, I watched an old man, old enough to be my grandfather, hop off the public transit as it decreased speed to a slow cruise down an asphalt hill but never stopping. I gasped as I saw him stumble and fall on his backside, but he immediately popped back up and went on his way as if nothing had happened. I was glad we were getting off at their Port Authority so that the bus would actually stop, but I’ll admit, when we’d hopped on, I literally mean we’d hopped on. The buses barely slow down enough for passengers to get on and disembark, so anyone planning on taking a trip to Quito better be ready to hit the ground running.

For those who love to travel for the food, be ready to have a healthy serving of soup before every savory meal (lunch and dinner). It’s more than enough soup to serve as a meal itself, but save room for the rice and beans, plantains, and meats. The amount of food I ate never stuffed me for long though, as I did enough walking up and down hills throughout the city and at sites on the outskirts that I was always ravenous by the time the next meal came around. Recommended: start off the day with a bowl of cereal with yogurt, not milk. My personal favorite was the guanabana (soursop) with fruit loops, as its sweet and tart mix made for a refreshing morning start.

We visited sites like Pululahua, a crater left over from a volcano that had erupted many years before, and now housed a valley with a village of locals that made their lives there. Over in Baños, in the distance stands the Tungurahua, a still-active volcano that has destroyed the village at its edge that no matter how many times it crumbles is always rebuilt and the people go on living in their home. At the Mitad del Mundo we straddled the equator and for a moment stood in two places at once.

There’s too many words and memories of my time in Ecuador, and although it’s been six years since I saw it, I still see the waterfalls and green mountains so clearly, with the view of Cotopaxi’s peak the first image that greeted me every morning. Since the moment I boarded the plane that took me back home to Florida, I’ve been dying to step back on my father’s land. I imagine the longing I have is only a fraction of what he’s felt every day since he left, and I can’t wait until the day we both return.

Book Club Medley

After several years of liking one another’s Goodreads and Facebook statuses, my cousins and I finally had the brilliant idea to start a family book club. Virtual, of course, as we are spread around South and Central Florida, Virginia, and New Jersey. The only problem is, with such varied schedules and reading speeds, picking one book to share proved to be difficult. So, what’s the solution? For our first month’s meeting, we agreed to each read our own book and bring it with us to the Google Hangouts session. Things were off to a rough start as no one made it to the originally agreed upon date. If we couldn’t manage to set time aside to do a video chat together, how would we ever read a book together?

The experiment turned out to be a success though. After a couple of days of flopping around, trying to make our schedules jive, we finally started our video chat and exchanged our thoughts on our individual books. We asked each other questions and discussed new perspectives, and all without having read the same book. There was a medley of genres, with one cousin bringing literary fiction and a fairy tale retelling, another cousin bringing a murder mystery and a true crime book, and still another cousin bringing comic books into the mix, while I myself brought a classic satire and work in translation.

It didn’t turn into a confusing and disorganized stew as I’d originally feared it might. Instead, we got a taste of different works and thoughtful discussion, like going to a buffet and trying a little bit of everything. I’ve never done a book club before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but our modified version turned into a fun and exciting adventure that left us wanting more. We agreed to do the same thing again for the next month and then try a joint book venture the month after, with a graphic novel or comic book series so that those of us with less time on our hands or shorter attention spans could still keep up with the reading schedule.

For any book clubbers out there, I highly recommend giving our cousins’ book club experiment a spin and instead of everyone reading the same book, read different books and start a conversation. It was such a fascinating result that made me excited to be a part of the reading community.

Romance and War

I recently started thinking about the books my parents gravitate towards and found it interesting how such opposite concepts can manage to come together. My mom is an avid romance reader, which means she looks for that HEA (Happily Ever After). My dad is fascinated by stories of war, the tragedy that comes with a life of strife. Romance and war don’t belong together. And yet…

Don’t all the best war stories include tales of love? A soldier leaving behind the girl he loves, promising to come back, even though he knows that’s not a promise he should make. Two best friends on the front lines together, for better or for worse, taking on the fire for one another. A father leaving his children in the care of the mother or trusted relative, never knowing if he’ll see them again, but assuring them it will all be alright in the end. How can such a seemingly hateful event be filled with stories of love and romance?

What is it that makes that HEA worthwhile in a romance novel? Is it the rosy good times of significant others spending hours walking hand in hand and making lovely, laughing memories together? No, it’s the strife. It’s the fight. It’s the war that comes with battling to hold onto something that makes the darkness tolerable. Sometimes love and romance can be hell. I’m not talking about toxic, unhealthy relationships where all the two people ever do is hurt each other and call it love. I’m talking about the genuine mistakes made in the process of learning to share yourself with another person, and that can hurt and feel like a fight, but it’s not futile.

So, romance and war. My mom and dad. Two types that are so different and yet somehow work together to create a story that’s full of multiple HEA’s after multiple battles to learn how to get to the end of the book together.

Burned Book

When I was about 13-years-old my dad’s old Toyota caught fire. I’ve told this story a hundred times, for different reasons and in different ways. This time though, it’s all about a book. Yes, a book of course, as this is a books and reading and writing blog. See, the day this event occurred, I’d brought my favorite copy of Calvin & Hobbes: Something Under the Bed is Drooling with me.

It was an old copy that I’d dug out of piles of junk my parents had collected over the years, and it smelled like moldy paper. I loved it. I read it over and over again, especially because when I rediscovered it my dad had gotten really excited and said, “Hey, I remember that! I loved that comic. It was my favorite.” It became my favorite, too.

The day the car caught fire, I ran out of the vehicle, not thinking about anything other than not getting burnt to a crisp. My dad, brother and I stood to the side of the highway watching the fire build from the bottom, slowly, and heard the glass pop as the windows got blown out. That’s when I gasped and uttered in a small voice, “My book.”

My brother Daryl heard me, and he tried to run back to the car to grab it from the backseat, but my dad pulled him back. See, he’d just run back a few seconds before to grab his CD case (music is no joke in my family). He said, “C’mon I’ve still got time. I can get her book.” My dad stood firm, saying it wasn’t worth the risk and that he shouldn’t have run back the first time for the CDs.

I nodded in agreement with my dad. No object could be worth risking your life to a fire. An explosion, really, that could happen at any moment. I still swallowed down the lump in my throat, though. My dad’s old copy of Calvin & Hobbes was forever lost to ash, and there was no replacing it. Though my brother did offer to buy me another Calvin & Hobbes book for Christmas (and he kept that promise).

I think Daryl knew what the book meant to me. He never quite shared my attachment to books, but he knew that they were important to me. And even though I’m sad I lost that old original copy, I always remember how my big brother was willing to run into a burning car to grab a book for me. But truthfully, I wouldn’t trade my brother for any number of books. Not even for my old, original copy of Something Under the Bed is Drooling.

War, What Is It Good For?

I recently took on a reading challenge this past year, and in that time, I’ve read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, and now I’m currently in the middle of reading James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers.  The categories I chose these books for are “a book based on a true story” and “a book with a blue cover,” respectively.

The weird thing is, I’ve never been interested in books, movies, or TV shows about war.  So, why these books and why now?  Well, the simple answer is, Jarhead was on my bookshelf because I’d bought it after meeting the author at the Florida Writers’ Conference, and Bradley’s book had been sitting on my shelf after I’d picked it up on a whim at a secondhand bookstore.

What had interested me in Swofford’s book in the first place was that I remembered watching the movie when I was a kid, and I knew it was one of my dad’s favorites.  So, naturally, I had to get a copy and have him sign it and give it to my dad.  Bradley’s book had sounded vaguely familiar as one of those books I should probably read.

I’ve never quite cared about war stories.  Not for lack of compassion, but as a kid, I didn’t understand why people would fight brutally with one another, and now as an adult, well, I still don’t understand it.

My dad, though, he understands that life.  See, my dad was an army guy.  Not here in the U.S., but in Ecuador, and from the stories I’ve heard him tell and the way he nods his head and says, “Yep,” every time he watches Jarhead, it seems the culture’s pretty similar.  My dad seems to have an endless repertoire of army stories, and some of his stories I’ve heard several times over.

I thought at first my picking up two war books for my reading challenge was coincidence based off what’s on my bookshelf, but I think subconsciously what drew me to them is the kid who heard my dad’s stories about intense training, Draconian drill sergeants and cruel punishments for what civilians would consider minor infractions, and the grownup in me wanted to better understand that.

It’s so weird for me to read these books, knowing they’re based off real life, and seeing pieces of my dad in them.  I’ve heard these stories before, in Spanish, but they’re the same stories.  I feel my heart strings tugged seeing how harsh the life of a warrior is, and all the time in the back of my mind I’m screaming, Oh my god that’s my dad!

Or rather, that was my dad.  He’s a civilian now, an American citizen, working for the FDOT and continuously making a life for my brother and me.  But that same guy, the one that taught me how to do math in my head was once doing the math in his head of what his chances of surviving war were.  The same hands that playfully squeeze my shoulders as he greets me when he comes home from work are the same that once squeezed a trigger on a rifle as he learned how to take an enemy out.

So, why these books, and why now?  Maybe because now that I’m older, even if I still don’t get war, I can understand my father a little bit better.

(Note: This was originally published on my personal Tumblr blog here.)