It was just happenstance that I found myself back in this city. I’d just finished the Camino with my family, and after some wandering we’d ended up here, in Málaga. After a few days in town, they’d all boarded their flights back to New Zealand, and here I was, in the middle of Plaza de la Merced, on my own again.
I can’t lie, that’s always a funny moment when I say bye to my family on the road. First, it’s a little bit awkward. There’s a hug and another hug and then they say bye. Then the taxi drives off, and I kind of smile, like oh ok, they’re gone.
As I walk off, it’s just numb for a while.
And then it comes. For about fifteen seconds, an overwhelming gush of loneliness. It’s like when you say goodbye to a good travel buddy, but a million times deeper, a million times more real. That feeling of someone leaving you, of you leaving someone, in a foreign place. It can’t be described. Sometimes, I struggle to fight back tears. Because suddenly it’s not just oh, they’re gone, but it’s like oh, they’re gone.
And then, a few seconds pass and you shake it off. You have to. And that vagabond feeling comes rumbling back. You realise it’s just you and the road once more.
So many possibilities now.
This is what we live for.
This is what we do.
The first thing I did was check into a hostel. Of course Mama always books nice guesthouses for us, but once she’s gone I’m back on the backpacker budget. I find a place pretty close by, a dorm bed is nine euros a night. Nine euros is good. I can do nine euros all day.
When I get there, I’m greeted by a petite Italian girl, who has the most Italian accent ever. She’s the receptionist. I follow up her up the stairs, and the first thing I notice are the blackened soles of her feet. That’s the tell tale sign of a hippie girl. Always walking around barefoot, with dirty feet. Usually in short shorts or elephant pants. And messy hair. Check, check, check.
I get to the dorm and collapse. It’s like a tradition now, when you get to a new dorm. Maybe you’re not even tired, but you just put your bags down and then just collapse on the bed. Then you lie there for a while, wondering what the hell to do.
Walk around? Mmm. Nah.
Just lie here and do nothing? Yeah. Good plan.
The next day, I decide to go shopping. I need to buy shoes, and shorts. I head to a big department store in the centre, El Corte Ingles. Once inside, I wonder why on earth I came here. Everything is expensive and shitty. Shoes for $200 with a stupid crocodile on the side.
I leave and walk around some other shops in the centre. As I walk around, I slowly rebuild the picture of these streets in my head.
You see, this isn’t my first time in Málaga. I came here seven years ago, on my first ever solo trip, to study Spanish. That trip changed my life. The friends I made on that trip, the things I learned about myself, about the world.
As I walk along the old streets, I realise I still remember everything.
That’s where Philip drank two large Cokes that morning because he was so hungover.
That’s the place we all ate tapas and the Swedes drank too much.
That’s where I bought that blue shirt that I still wear today sometimes.
I remember it all, how special it felt at the time. Nobody forgets their first solo trip. It was the trip that changed everything. It inspired me to see the world.
Now here I am again, seven years later, and I’ve seen the world. As I chat in Spanish to strangers on the street – much of it learned at that school just a short bus ride away – wandering solo like it’s just an ordinary Wednesday, I think about how much life has changed. Walking these streets again is like returning home to see an old mentor. It’s like I came back, just to say thank you, and to let them know, I did it.
That next day, I meet a French girl cooking in the hostel kitchen. Until now I’ve been the only one cooking in the kitchen. But now there’s a French girl in the kitchen. She’s using my pot. I mean it’s not really my pot, but I use it all the time, so I feel like it’s my pot. She’s a quirky, artsy girl.
Actually, I have no idea if she has any quirk, or artistic talent. It’s probably just the dark rimmed glasses.
Her name is Kathy.
I can’t remember what Kathy and I talk about, but we talk for a long time. Now that I think about it, Kathy was telling me a lot about moving to Málaga, and she couldn’t find a place to stay, so she was staying here. So my pot was cooking, and I sat on the bench listening to her, while she cut up her salad, which looked like absolute shit.
I ask her if that’s classic French food. She laughs. She knows it looks shit. From this conversation, I can already tell, Kathy is gonna be my hostel buddy.
In every hostel you go to, you have a hostel buddy. It’s like the first person you meet, usually you arrive at the same time, and so you have this weird bond. Like hey, I met you on my first day, so we’re like, friends now. That conversation was enough for Kathy and I to become hostel buddies.
Later that evening, I walk into the lounge and see Kathy talking to some guy. His name is Dino.
Dino is a short, wiry, smiley Englishman. I don’t know how old he is, but I’m going to guess early forties. He’s one of those bike guys – those guys who just ride their bicycle everywhere, and chill out at the bar in bicycle shorts. They’re actually quite common on the hostel circuit. Right now he’s riding his bike all around Spain, or something. That sounds kind of fun. I should do that some day.
The next day I decide I need some exercise, maybe from seeing Dino’s rippled forearms the day before, so I head down to the beach. It’s a half hour walk, and there’s a public outdoor gym there, I guess for people to burn off all their late night plates of paella. I pump iron for about half an hour, then hide in the shade. Spanish sun is serious business.
Then, in the distance I see a girl sunbathing topless on the beach.
This isn’t a topless beach.
She’s the only one.
And then I get the smart idea to go and talk to her.
Me: Brendan, don’t be stupid, leave her alone.
Other me: No Brendan, face your fears, this will be good for you.
Me: Seriously, you’re just going to go talk to her? She’ll think you’re a freakin weirdo.
Other me: Who cares what she thinks bro, just go, this is how legends are made.
This conversation goes on in my head for half an hour while I sit in the shade. My heart rate is elevated. This will be a first, I’ve never gone and talked to a girl on the beach before. When I hear myself say that, my mind changes. Because if you’ve never done something before, you have to do it. Are you really going to die having never talked to a topless girl on the beach?
I stand up and walk up to her. I’m dripping in sweat, wearing the most homeless looking clothes ever.
No excuses. Just go.[in Spanish]
…I was just walking by, I wanted to say hello.”
She’s actually smiling. Is she fake smiling or real smiling?
She sits up to talk to me. This is going 300x better than I expected.
“Do you always sunbathe without clothes?”
“Yeah, I like it this way.”
“You know in my country, you can’t do that. Police will come and tell you to put your clothes back on.”
“Yeah, it is.”
We continue to talk for a few minutes, about small stuff. Then I start to feel like a weirdo, so I decide it’s time to go.
“I’ve gotta go. But shall we get a drink?”
She looks at me.
“No, later some time!”
I save her number, and high five her, and say bye, and walk off. My heart thumps so hard, like I’ve just survived a near death experience. Maybe I have.
As I walk back to the hostel, I feel invincible. Everything is possible now. I’m a legend. I can already see life changing in my head. I’m going to text her, we’re gonna go to a hipster bar and have a drink. We’ll tell each other stories and she’ll laugh at my accent. We’ll go on a second date. We’ll talk about our favourite songs and our dreams and go for a long romantic walk along the beachfront. She’ll show me a secret side of Málaga I never knew. Maybe I’ll end up staying here for weeks, months. We’ll travel Spain together and create something beautiful.
A few hours later, I text her.
She doesn’t text back.
That night, I cook some spinach and chicken, then go and sit in the hostel bar to do some work. There’s a bunch of locals in there. They’re all friends of the owner. The owner of this hostel is a crazy man. But he’s a friendly crazy man. The good kind of crazy man.
One of these locals comes over to my table and greets me. She’s much older than me, maybe in her forties. Her name is Lupe. She asks me to help her paint her nails. I smile at her for a moment, trying to figure out if she’s serious. She is. I tell her I don’t know how to paint nails. She insists that I try. I try. Turns out, I’m a natural. We both have a good laugh, and then she tells me to come join the rest of them at their table.
After I finish up on my laptop I go and sit with them. Of course, they only speak Spanish. That’s not a problem, I’ve been practicing mine on the Camino for the last month, it’s all come back to me. I sit there and chat with them. Lupe comes over and puts a beer in front of me. Her gay friend, I think his name was Miguel, eccentrically plants a cigarette in my hand. Everyone introduces themselves enthusiastically. The Spanish know how to make you feel welcome.
Sitting opposite me is a man and his teenage son. He commends me on my Spanish, and asks where I learned. I tell him I studied in a few places, for a few months, a few years ago. I talk to the kid. Seems like a good kid. Another old guy joins in the conversation, asking me a few questions, about a few random things. It hits me, moments like these – these were the reason I wanted to study language in the first place. To be able to go to a random bar and talk to people. To hear people’s stories. To understand the world. Now I’m here, I’m really doing it.
A few days later, I wake up and I’m nearly suffocating. There’s no air conditioning in this place, so the afternoons are lethal. The July sun in the south of Spain is a weapon of mass destruction.
I lie on the couch, paralysed. I can’t move. I can’t eat.
Now I know why they have siestas in Spain. In this heat, anything other than sleeping is torture.
Later that evening, while still stuck to the couch, Kathy walks in. We sit and chat. Haven’t seen her for a few days, but she’s my hostel buddy, so we’re always cool. And she is cool. Most French girls aren’t really that cool, but Kathy is cool. She’s like that girl, who is kind of nerdy but still cute. Those kinds of girls are always cool.
Dino comes in a bit later. Bad news. His bike’s been stolen.
Since he’s a bike guy, I already know this is really going to screw with him. You can’t steal a bike from a bike guy, man. That’s the lowest of the low. Just evil. We sit and talk about it for a while. Dino is sad, obviously, but he’s chill. He tries to smile about it, turn it into one of those life lessons.
Kathy asks him how much it will cost to buy another bike. Dino gives her a look.
“That’s not the point. That bike has been with me all over Europe, I’ve been everywhere on that bike, on that bike. You know?”
Yeah Kathy. Don’t you know?
I feel really shitty for him. Who the fuck steals a bike from a bike guy?
Later that night, Dino, Kathy and I sit outside in the bar with a few drinks. Nobody’s there except us. Out of nowhere, Dino pulls out possibly the fattest joint I’ve ever seen in my life and asks if I want to share it with him. I say sure. Dude just lost his bike, you know. Gotta support him and all that.
As the night goes on we have one of those talks about life, about nothing. We talk about our travels, about Britain’s colonisation of the world (funny how that always comes up), about where we’re all heading next. I can’t remember what else we talk about, but as Dino takes off to bed, I remember thinking what a cool guy he is. Still out here, living the dream.
There’s a new guy in my dorm today. He has a guitar. And he’s wearing old Chuck Taylor’s. Kinda like a wannabe John Mayer. As soon as he opens his mouth I know he’s British. He tells me how he just sits around all day and busks. If we were anywhere else, I’d ask him to play us something. But my ears don’t work in this heat. The only things that work are my eyes, and the only thing they can do is shut. And my sweat glands, of course. Those are definitely working.
That night, there’s a big barbecue in the hostel bar. The owner is a grill master, firing up all kinds of different meats. I sit on the steps with the Italian hippie girl. I forget her name, but certainly not her personality. She tells me about how she’s travelling around Europe with her cat, who I’ve noticed wandering around the hostel every day. And how she kind of just got stuck here in Málaga, working at this place, getting comfortable.
That’s a common story. Everyone who backpacks for more than a few months gets stuck somewhere. Even me. We all say we love the road, but there are always times when we crave a home as well. Getting stuck somewhere tends to give us the best of both worlds.
The next people to check in to the hostel are these two Dutch kids. They’re young, maybe 18. They’re staying in Kathy’s room I think.
That night, we all decide it will be a good idea to go out. We head to the plaza nearby, and order some dirty cocktails. As we sit around the table being typical drunk travellers, it hits me…I’m the old guy now. These kids aren’t even out of university, and I’m the thirty year old backpacker drinking cocktails with them. I’m finally that guy. And I mean, that guy has always been around, and that guy is always cool. But now I’m him. It never occurred to me that one day I might be him. But now I am.
It’s a long, drunk walk back to the hostel. Kathy and I are laughing about something. That’s what happens with your hostel buddy. It feels like you’ve known each other forever. We get to the hostel and go sit in the kitchen in the pitch black and talk. It’s weird how we even have anything to talk about.
We really don’t have anything in common.
She’s a blonde French girl from a little town, I’m a Chinese kid from New Zealand. She’s in school, I’m like some homeless blogger writer guy. But we have the road in common. I guess that’s enough to make friends out of anyone.
A few days later, Lupe asks me out for a drink. Since I’m just so busy, I decline.
Just kidding. I have absolutely nothing to do. I go meet her at the bar nearby.
I think Lupe is old enough to be my mother. I don’t know how old exactly, but she’s around there somewhere. I wondered for a moment, if she was trying to seduce me. But I think, she just wanted someone to chill with. We sit out on the terrace with a pair of gin and tonics and talk. We talk about all kinds of mature topics, like the refugee crisis and traditions and family stuff. She smashes through her pack of cigarettes like they’re Skittles. She laughs a lot. Really doesn’t seem to give a shit about much. She’s really cool, Lupe. I start to wonder what she was doing, hanging out at a hostel bar on the weekend with a bunch of backpacker kids.
Maybe she was one of us, back in the day.
Maybe she can’t let it go.
Maybe that will be me some day.
When I get back to the hostel that night, Italian girl is sitting outside on the balcony with her cat. Guitar guy is out there too. Kathy is inside on the couch. I sit with Kathy and we catch up. I notice she’s got a world peace wristband on. I ask her about it.
“Guess how much it cost.”
She shakes her head.
She shakes her head.
“It was ten euros! I got it at a festival. It was for like a fundraiser thing.”
“Can I have it?”
She slips it off her hand and gives it to me. I take it and put it on. I don’t know how I knew she would give it to me, but I just did. Probably because I would’ve done the same thing.
Suddenly, I’m so grateful I met her.
Suddenly, I feel like Kathy and I have everything in common.
That night, I book a flight for the next day. When we find ourselves in these cities, these hostels, where we’re not here for any reason other than to be here, there comes a time when we know it’s time to go. That night, while lying in bed, I knew it was time to go.
I check out early the next morning. I hugged Italy goodbye and took a few selfies with her. Kathy was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t get to say goodbye. Nor Dino. Nor guitar guy. Nor the Dutch kids. In fact, I don’t think I said bye to anyone. But sometimes it’s better that way. As long as the moments were good, the goodbyes can remain unsaid. Because we already know what’s being said inside. Besides, if we learn one thing out here, it’s that the road is a circle so, there’s a good chance we’ll see each other again some day. Anyway.
To the memories of Málaga,