In deciding to backpack around Spain, not really deciding from one week to the next where I was heading, one of the questions I had was whether I would actually enjoy that open-ended, potentially-chaotic experience. It’s easy and even understandable to get frustrated when you’re traveling. Cultures are different, social norms are different, the transportation is different, and so on, well before you get to language barriers. No matter how prepared you are, you can’t predict what’s going to happen – and to have a good experience, you have to be open to random acts of chaos.
And there’s no way to really know how you’ll take that except to just try it and find out.
The flight from Palma to Sevilla takes less than an hour and a half. But getting from our spot on the east coast side of Mallorca to the AirBNB studio apartment in Sevilla took 11 hours. The first 2.5 hours began with the tour provided by the airport shuttle I had booked, a route that can best be described as less of a straight line and more of, well, a spiral.
I arrived at the airport 11:30AM for a 2PM flight – the shuttle service really wanted me to make my flight – but I enjoyed the lunch I had packed for myself ahead of time, went through security without a hitch, and got to my gate. There was a scramble of mass confusion when Ryan Air switched the gate 10 minutes before take-off, but no matter. I stood in line, got to my seat, and waited for takeoff.
It took a while.
As we were heading down the runway for takeoff, the pilot announced that a very big red light was flashing on the console and they were therefore taking us back to the airport in the hopes that the engineer on call could probably figure it out. Alas, an hour later, the engineer admitted defeat and the pilot took us back to the airport. We disembarked, got on shuttle buses, and returned to our original gate. It was right across from an information station, so some poor gent got an earful from a plane’s worth of angry Spaniards, who pounded their fists on his desk in outrage and shouted a lot.
I went to the nearby bar and had a Shandy.
I had to gulp the last bit, however, because the plane was boarding again. What? They had said they needed to fly the necessary part in from Madrid or Barcelona! Instead – perhaps because of the angry Spaniards – they had gotten us a new plane, and we would be departing shortly. So, second verse, same as the first, show the boarding pass, walk down the ramp, get into the new plane, and wait. This time we took off at 5:30 (two and a half hours after the original departure time) and reached Sevilla at 7PM.
On arrival, I skipped the taxi line and boarded the bus to the city center. No problems there at all: my stop was the end station, so there couldn’t be any confusion about whether I was at the right stop or not. (Other passengers did not have it so easy, as other bus stops were often missing, well, a stop, much less any sign that indicated a bus might stop there.)
On arriving at my station, I opened up google maps, which I had preprogrammed with the address. The app helpfully told me that I was standing on the roof of the building across the street.
Um: no, I thought, but okay. I can figure this out. Just transpose where I’m actually standing with where google maps thinks I’m standing, and this should work. Turn left, walk through the brick wall on the screen, hop over the fountain on the other side of the street, etc.
But really, I thought, who cares? I’m on vacation. I’m in Spain. I’m breathing Spanish air, watching people cycle by, realizing that there’s no street signs…
OK. So there aren’t any maps nearby, google maps is failing me for the first time ever (I realized later it doesn’t feature any of the narrow streets of Sevilla, which as far as I can tell makes up about 85% of the city), there are little to no street signs, and I don’t speak the language, which is my own fault for being all romantic and taking French in high school instead of Spanish like a rational person, and –
You’re on vacation. Just wing it.
I took a last glance at my apartment’s alleged location on google maps, shut my phone off, and just walked.
The neighborhood for the apartment is completely residential: a smattering of restaurants, a city layout that will give you whiplash, but entirely charming. Nothing higher than three stories, really. The houses are all painted a stately shade of white, but the doors and shutters are all different colors: royal blue, bright red, pine green. The air is different, too – it smells distantly of incense, and myrtle trees, and orange trees. All around me, people were walking home from work, mothers were pushing their toddlers in little strollers, gentlemen were walking their dogs. Not a corporate suit in sight, but lots of everyday folk, doing their own thing, heading home after a long day.
It was lovely.
When I got really turned around, I switched on my phone and asked a passing lady for her help, miming at the destination on my screen (as far as I could tell, google maps thought it might be accessible by helicopter). She spoke no English or German and I spoke horrific remedial Spanish, but I got the general idea that I needed to go back the way I’d come, and walk even further. I remembered to say Muchos Gracias and Buenos Tardes, watched as google apps told me to walk through a wall and into a parking garage, and followed my nose.
Eventually, I found the street, and then the building, and knocked on my landlord’s door.
Lola, a wisp of a woman with bright blonde hair and wearing a turquoise house coat, greeted me like a long-lost friend. She embraced me, kissed me on both cheeks, and insisted on serving me watermelon, which was cold and delicious – an amazing treat after wandering through various picturesque alleys for 30 minutes.
From the get-go, Lola spoke not a word of English or German and no interest in trying. It was rapid-fire, sink-or-swim Spanish, with – contrary to ethnic stereotypes – not a single lifeline of a gesture. She couldn’t have been more lovely as a host, and I responded as much as I could, but I imagine that from her perspective it was a little like talking to a concussed turtle: progress was slow and indefinite, with little hope of progress.
That didn’t deter Lola. Brandishing keys, she led me to the top of the building, where my room had been renovated from its former existence as a rooftop shack, and was now a lovingly painted and decorated studio apartment. The top of the building serves as its terrace, complete with a lawn chair, plastic table, and even an umbrella for the sun. She showed me how to turn on the air conditioner (thank God for that, I thought, as it was supposed to be upwards of 100 degrees during my visit), departed, and I fell back on my bed at 8:30PM, eleven and a half hours after I’d started, completely and absolutely exhausted. Well, that wasn’t so bad, I thought, all things considered it was –
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG –
I froze. It felt like church bells, but the sound was more that of being called to dinner by the sound of a cast-iron pan being pelted with a metal ladle.
– BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG –
I stayed on the bed and started counting. I stopped at 26 clangs. It was like Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame decided to really let loose and explore their inner cowboys.
– BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
The silence stretched out, and I scrambled to think why it would be necessary to ring a church bell more than 26 times. Evening mass? A wedding? No matter, I thought, that really wasn’t so –
BONG! BONG! BONGITTY-BONGITTY-BONG! BONGBONGBONGBONGBONGBONG BOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNG!
I waited a while while the pregnant pause stretched out, and then I said, “Huh. That was interesting.”
And that’s when I knew the whole trip was going to be fine.
I’m not saying that I might not have a meltdown now and then, and I know this post might read like a complaint. But really, all of it was fine (talk to me in three months, you might say, and to that I say: yeah, that’s fair). Would I prefer that the shuttle had gone more or less directly to the airport, that the flight had left on time, that google maps hadn’t suddenly had an epileptic fit? Sure.
Do I wish I’d stayed at home? No way.
The bells have since stilled – nope, scratch that, they just started again as I’m writing this, though this time it’s just four BONGS (at 6:01PM) – but I’m okay with it. Sing your western-campfire song, bell ringer. Don’t stay mute on my account.
I’m having a wonderful time.