There are times during travel when a place is so stimulating and refreshing that one is able to appreciate the moments immediately, instead of later on, through the filter of sentimental memory. On the small beach of Cala Pregonda in Menorca, after a dusty half-hour walk through prickly fauna and hissing wind, there is a series of small coves, deep green and blue water, reddish sand, cliffs, moored yachts, schools of curious fish, and a whole slew of aged, overweight German nudists hiding cans of beer in their butt cracks.
Ok, a small exaggeration, there weren’t schools of curious fish, only two or three indifferent ones. Time spent on a beach can be astoundingly boring, especially when even nudity is not only trivialized immediately but goes almost unnoticed. Almost. With a few traumatic exceptions, I am always amazed how quickly the novelty of naked people wears off. During a stopover from sailing in the Adriatic Sea, I remember having a pseudo-intellectual conversation with a fully naked Austrian woman of around 40 years old. I stood there with a beer in my hand and we were talking about Croatia’s supposed war criminals and the pros and cons of the country’s imminent inclusion in the European Union. We finished our conversation, she was impressed that I was an American who knew that Austria wasn’t next to New Zealand, we went back to our respective places. And that’s the end of the story. Sometimes nudity becomes so blatantly nonsexual, it’s almost disappointing. But on the subject of beach-going, when something is in fact refreshing, by definition it must be relatively new and a fulfillment of something missed or longed for. In this case, it is the satisfaction of having to do nothing at all. At the beach in Cala Pregonda, the pleasures of swimming in the cool salty water, gently swatting away wasps from a cold beer, and remembering the feeling of slightly sunburned skin (ok, maybe not slightly), these small things easily overtook any preoccupation or distraction of western European customs of being naked.
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Places of isolation tend to linger in my mind, and I try to keep them in my memory, as if they were co-opted locations for my soul to rest, a backroom where I can find peace of mind at any moment. The mist of a breathing orca in the early morning at Neah Bay, in Washington state. A sandy seat next to a giant piece of driftwood along the yellow flowers and hanging moss of an Olympic National Park beach. The anachronistic, communist bay town of Veli Iz on the Dalmatian coast. The wet deck of a tilting cargo ship sailing through the Patagonian Channel. A roadside stop in the darkness of a night somewhere in the Yukon Territory. Lying flat, wrapped tight in a parka, looking up at the purple, green and red of the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska. A bitter coffee from a truck stop near Gallup, New Mexico. A thin, red sandstone canyon leading to the water of Lake Powell, Utah. Sitting at the helm of a catamaran, with tired eyes, surrounded by the green of phosphorescent algae in the mid-Atlantic at 3:30 in the morning. Ironically, the source of my attraction to these places must be that they are places of few inhabitants, with a lack of expectation, an absence of clutter. Discovering these places goes beyond the banal aversion to tourist traps; these are places that are a sort of subjective fantasy land, intimate because they are inhabitable. And they are happened upon by accident, and are irrelevant to plans or intention, perhaps like love. Perhaps my places of isolation are my own replacement for love.
Punta Nati, on the northwest corner of Menorca, is a wide and rocky landscape blown clean by wind, and there is not much to say about it. There are sharp rocks spread evenly over the rolling hills, partly covered in hardy, yellow lichen and scattered between the ancient, waist-high stony walls that can be found in many rural areas of the Mediterranean. At the end of a long, one-lane road is a natural home for a lighthouse, which sits on an extremity of land that pokes out into the choppy sea full of constant white caps and often a lone sailboat flying a single small sail. The lighthouse facility seems to be completely devoid of people. The only evidence of any upkeep or maintenance is the spinning light at the top of the tower, behind the cleaned glass. Before the lighthouse was built, on 9 February 1910, a steamboat broke apart on the rocks just off the coast. In my opinion, stories of shipwrecks are often akin to churches and cathedrals. No matter the scale, spectacle, or tragedy, after a while, they start to run together and loose significance. When you’ve seen on shipwreck you’ve seen them all. But sitting on the windy cliff of Punta Nati, the imagination, as well as my own first-hand experience at sea, quickly recreates the panic of a ship aground against the pounding sea of this windy island. I had a similar experience while sitting next to the lighthouse at the Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa. When one hears the crash of the waves against the rocks, while seeing the deep green and blue of the water, it is easy to imagine the terror and ruthlessness of the sea, in the absence of the comforting glow of a lighthouse.
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Most of my traveling life thus far has consisted of me, a backpack full of wrinkled clothes, an alarm clock, a journal full of sentence fragments, and my own taking pictures of myself with a low-budget camera. To some, this is tragic and pathetic, to others just pathetic, and still others cool and enviable. But now, there is one thing that I have grown to understand about myself. I no longer prefer to travel alone. That is, if I have a choice, a choice which I often do not have. If I waited around and adhered to the short list of travel partners I’ve jotted down, I am doomed to disappointment. So far, this lifestyle has won by default and it is facilitated by a lack of financial responsibility, children, a loving partner, and any type of legitimate career.
There is a simple pleasure, though, that is a perfect manifestation of human experience amidst the fog of travel, and it is easy to share with others, especially if you’re buying: food and drink. To pursue and partake in local fare is a rewarding product of worth-while research, both alone and with someone else with similar tastes. (although I am consistently surprised to find people who have no real interest in eating or drinking, I am not surprised that I generally have no interest in them). In Menorca, there are many excellent products of the sea, food that usually has an interesting history, both immediately in the day it is prepared and in the long years of tradition and family customs. Unfortunately, there are many places in the world so inundated with people and botched wildlife management practices, that the quality food has become expensive or just unavailable. A perfect example is the Mediterranean. In Croatia, expect to be gouged for a plate of octopus or fish. A pot of Menorcan caldereta, a rich stew of lobster stays at around €50 – €75 per person. For me, that will have to wait for a special occasion with a special person, or at least a night of exceptionally drunken irrational decision-making. The small plate of gambas pictured above cost around €1,50 per gamba. Nowadays, the amount of work required to harvest fresh shellfish has increased drastically. The fisherman often must break from tradition, work longer hours, going farther out to sea, earlier in the morning and later at night. But it is still a great, simple experience to discover this great food, and even more so with others, and I don’t mind splurging on something like this. As I’ve said before, wine always seems to taste better when in the company of friends or someone closer, but I’ve never been one to deprive myself of gastronomic pleasure for lack of friends. And if in Menorca, don’t forget the gin. There is a locally produced spirit called Xoriguer, and when mixed with limón, is the perfect summer afternoon drink.
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One shameless plug for a hostel in Cuitadella. Booking anything through a secondary reservation system is risky, but sometimes you get it right. Hotel Cala Bona-Mar Blava went beyond expectations, which, to be fair, were low. But the staff there understood the simple tourist/service industry relationship, and neither overwhelmed us with shameless salesman ploys nor required us to integrate ourselves into a generation of Menorquín family history to get easy information, like renting a car or getting a bocadillo. They smiled, included us in the complimentary breakfast (even though we booked, and got cheaper prices, through another company), and they didn’t even take a deposit on the room. They were relaxed but not oblivious. A cynic may attribute these habits as one of an inexperienced entrepreneur, but I’d like to think they were just nice people who enjoy what they do for a living, with the full realization of the beautiful place in which they live. There is also a great terrace where a quiet breakfast is completed by the deep blue of a beach cove surrounded by cactus and cliffs. There are pathways that lead to little ladders that dip into the water, for a morning snorkel in crystal-clear water.
It must be mentioned, though, that this hostel, as well as much of Menorca, is well-suited for couples and families. No DJ Sasha or David Guetta spinning on a beach full of perfect bodies until 5am, no posh discotecas or Cafe Del Mar sunsets. But there is plenty of beach space, restaurants, quiet roads and beautiful panoramic photographic opportunities. I took this trip with a friend from work, and it was a great trip. But we often snickered at our situation as slight outcasts, amidst kissy couples and bus ques of elderly map-readers. The island of Menorca has much more to reveal, and as in all my traveling, this trip was only a cursory look into a particular culture and history. For me, this trip partly served as a scouting mission for a future get-away with the one person I’d love to share it with. Or, maybe I’ll return and just be taking pictures of myself again.
Click here for more pictures of my trip to Menorca.