To the edge and back

The plan has changed, again. Again.

It was bound to, I knew. Taking up a job at a new company in a new city — Barcelona — was an adventure. In less than two months, I learned loads. But I quit. I would be happy to tell you the story in person. Just ask me.

Jobless, planless and aimless, my roommate and I set off on a trip south. She had a wedding to attend, and was going to spend time kitesurfing at the southern tip of Spain, in a small town called Tarifa. I had no reason to stay in Barcelona and wanted to get away from the city to clear my head of the work and weird situations I had gotten myself into there.

So, she rented a Fiat 500, which we packed to the brim with her kitesurfing gear, her dress for the wedding, and my backpack.

What happened next was two weeks that brought me over the edge and back.

Setting off

I never planned to spend this much time in Spain, ever. But already, I had crossed the country from west to east on an overnight train from Portugal to Madrid and then to Barcelona. Now, Fiat full of baggage, we were to trace the eastern coast from north to south. We took off through the hills and after some hours flew by Valencia, which I did not think I would see this soon again.

We talked and ate dry paella at a truck stop. We tried to download an audiobook to listen to during the 12-hour drive, but I accidentally downloaded an ebook. I ended up reading it to my roommate aloud, doing voices for the characters as we sped through the darkening hills.

The car had just enough room for all of our gear, and to take silly pictures like this while we headed to Sevilla for the day.

By noon the next day, we were in Tarifa. This place is the southernmost point of mainland Europe, not too far past the Rock of Gibraltar, and the wind whips at it from all directions: from the rocky land; from the cold Atlantic; from the squeezed Mediterranean and from Africa. On a clear day, you can look across the water and see the hills of Morocco in the distance.

It’s no wonder my roommate and her friends have come here to kitesurf for years, living in run-down pisos for months at a time as they waited for days when the wind was strong. They are all a bit older now and are staying in their own Airbnbs, but the whole gang came down south to kitesurf for a few days before and after their friends’ wedding.

Kitesurfers get pulled by their colorful kites on a windy day in Tarifa, the long-beached town at the southernmost tip of Spain.

We walked through the ancient cobbled streets, a maze of white buildings on all sides, until we reached the apartment where my roommate’s friends were staying. I met them all and got to know them over glasses of tinto de verano — wine mixed with lemon soda — over the next few days. Some of them run their own companies; others coach sports and travel as much as they can. They have all been coming to the bottom edge of Spain to get lost or found for the better part of a decade. I kept having to explain my age and why I was here: because I had quit a job I was not supposed to have in the first place, and, like them but possibly less literally, I was blowing in the wind.

We went to the beach. We ate pizza in a tiny square where they greeted the restaurant owner with hugs and bits of Italian. I found I was able to understand more Spanish than before; answering simple questions with si or no and not sounding like an idiot. Tiny new words took on meaning: tengo, frio, mas, tambien, tampoco, con pollo. I said the word for “chicken” wrong, forgetting the Y sound on the double L and saying, “polo.” My new friends laughed at me when the waiter looked confused. “You’d been doing great until then, but … .”

The wind dropped one day and we took a ferry to Tangier, a port city in the far north of Morocco. With a 35-minute boat ride, we were in a different world. The edge disappeared behind us.

The port city of Tangier, Morocco, is influenced by the cultures of North Africa, Spain, France and Portugal. The walls of the old city, pictured here, look out on the Straight of Gibraltar. The town is reachable by just a 35-minute ferry ride from Spain.
A busy street in Tangier’s old town. Vendors sell dried fruit and candy. Nearby, there is a market full of fish and meat.
Residents of Tangier climb the hill toward the kasbah, the fortress at the highest point of the city.
Children egg each other on during their walk to school in the kasbah of Tangier.
A detail on the wall of the American Legation in the medina of Tangier. The building is the first American public property outside the United States and commemorates the states’ longstanding diplomatic relationship with Morocco, which began in the 1780s. Morocco was the first country to recognize the U.S. as a country.

Wind tunnel

Then, for the next few days I was back in Tarifa. My roommate had started on a road trip with her brother and I was now with her friends, who felt at least a little like my friends now. They kitesurfed at the beach and I ran on the packed sand, stopping at shallow pools and turning and sprinting into the wind.

People who live in this place year round go crazy because of the wind. If there’s not a use for it, like to propel their sails or kites, it can drive people over the edge.

Going over the edge and back did not help me feel any less lost. I am grateful for the ability to take a boat to Morocco or a bus to Madrid on a whim. You need time and money to do that. I have some money, but mostly I have a lot of time. I am privileged; I am a lucky one and I am thankful to be here. But these months have helped me realize that Spain, this country I never thought I would see so much of, is so big. And the world is so big. I suppose I knew that in theory before but I know it more now.

Even with unlimited resources, where to go? There’s no way to see it all. There’s not enough time.

Not seeing everything is OK, of course. It’s probably a good thing.

Lost in the wind, not knowing how long to stay or when to go, I opted to leave Tarifa. I took a bus to the port city of Algeciras and then another bus to Granada. I spent a day walking along some other white-walled, ancient streets. Back at the hostel, I’m pretty sure a couple tried to get into bed with each other, if you know what I mean. Eww.

Then I took a bus to Madrid, leaving Andalusia and people saying “gracia” instead of “gracias” behind. The city’s grand and colorful buildings were breathtaking, and its size and street life reminded me of Paris. Teens wore Stan Smiths in the subway with their black skinny jeans. That also reminded me of Paris.

The Catedral Santa María la Real de La Almudena in Madrid.

Finishing dinner at the hostel the first night, a man my dad’s age offered me a yogurt that he was not going to eat. He introduced himself as a Canadian named Paul and said he travels six months out of every year. He worked for the Canadian air force and did search and rescue missions, and is now retired. He was just in India and found a cheap flight to Spain because it had been raining too much. He’s headed for the Western Sahara next.

He travels with a small backpack, stays in hostels and follows the budget flights and his interests. “If I had more money, I still wouldn’t travel any other way,” he said. The more money you spend traveling, the less you see, he said. All five-star hotels everywhere in the world look the same. He prefers leaving his hostels at 5 a.m. and finding where the locals eat breakfast after working the graveyard shift.

He also only plans as much as he needs to. Like I was trying to do. I told him I was struggling with that level of freedom; that it was so lovely I was getting lost in it. “People tend to like structure,” he said. He sets off to do one thing every day; maybe it’s going to the post office; maybe it’s taking a boat through a jungle. “Over six months, it adds up,” he said. He talks to everyone; he’s open minded; he tries things before saying he does not like them. And he’s been traveling awhile. “You’ll go more places and get the hang of it,” he said.

We agreed to meet for coffee and more travel talk the next day. When I went downstairs for breakfast, I opened the fridge and saw a note attached to my yogurt: “Had to leave a bit early. It was great to meet you. Have a wonderful life. Namaste.” Paul’s plan had changed, as he welcomed it to, and he was off to a new destination.

Back to Barcelona

I left Madrid later that day, no less lost, no less settled, but full or stories from the people I had met and the places I had seen. The bus ride was eight hours long and I walked through Barcelona at 4 a.m., past the dark Arc de Triomf and taxis waiting to be called. My backpack was heavy with clothes still full of sand from Tarifa. My jacket had some dirt on it from a nap in Madrid’s Buen Retiro Park.

Barceloneta was calm in the pre-dawn, the yelling neighbors and tourists nowhere to be seen. I followed a man from my bus all the way to the neighborhood, and we ended up taking out our keys and going into the same apartment building. For him, and for me too, for now — home.


Photos: From south to north

Fiat 500, highway, ferry, straight of Gibraltar, bus, bus bus, and a long walk home in the middle of the night. Many means of transport were used on this trip, and even more was seen.

Rooftops of traditional Andalusian buildings in the center of Tarifa, Spain.
Colorful architecture on the streets of Sevilla.
Sevilla’s door guardians.
The gargantuan modern lookout point at Plaza de la Encarnacion in Sevilla.
The Sevilla skyline seen from the structure on Plaza de la Encarnation.
Archways at the American Legation in Tangier.
The cathedral in downtown Granada.
The front view of the Granada Cathedral.
A Saturday morning flea market Madrid’s Chueca neighborhood.
Spanish language books at cozy Desperate Literature in Madrid, which serves free whiskey when you purchase certain books.
An organic market near Madrid’s opera house.
People leaving Mercado de San Miguel in central Madrid.
Tapas at Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel.

4 thoughts on “To the edge and back

  1. Hailey,
    You truly never cease to amaze me! Your sense of adventure, your keen awareness to your surroundings, your love for and comfort with the “Other.” But most of all… For your gratitude and humility, knowing the great value in these experiences!
    I love you!


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