By Mamta Naidu
A telephone conversation with my sister on a chirpy Thursday morning went something like this:
"Guess what! I'm going to Barcelona this weekend - all on my own! I'm slightly nervous, but very excited!" *Giggles*
"WHAT? Barcelona? On your own? You must be out of your goddamn mind! What if someone mugs you? Or kidnaps you? Or murders you and sells your body parts? What if someone rapes you?"
"Now that's just morbid. Next time I'll call you only when I have absolutely no one else to talk to." And I hung up.
I've got to hand it to my sister. It's incredible how she manages to survive, being so negative every waking hour.
In the meanwhile, I batted my lashes and took advantage of a colleague's benevolent heart to book my weekend holiday. Little did I know that everything that could possibly go wrong, would go wrong on this trip, and Murphy would have a merry laugh at my expense!
Saturday 6AM at the Charles De Gaulle airport:
The lady at the ticket counter was smiling, up until I handed her a printout of my ticket and passport. Her head oscillated between the printout and her computer several times while she punched at some stubborn keys. Bored I turned around and shot a "Barcelona huh? Me too!" look at the people in the queue behind me. No one so much as blinked. So I turned back around, picked up a couple of baggage tags and strapped them on to my luggage, imagining I was efficiently saving five minutes of my precious weekend.
"Parle francais?" Speak French? The lady finally asked me, after what felt like an eternity.
"Juste un peu." Just a little, I replied apologetically.
"Do you have any other reservation number? This booking is cancelled."
"What? That's not possible. Could you please look it up with my passport number?"
"I've done that already." Pointing towards the help desk few yards away she said, "You can talk to them."
Following her instructions diligently, I hobbled away with my bags, luggage tags still intact.
Unfortunately, the lady at the help desk confirmed that my booking was in fact cancelled, and she couldn't book me on another flight until Sunday morning.
I couldn't access the internet at the cafe until 10 AM and was in absolutely no mood to access the airport kiosk and follow instructions in French. And I definitely didn't want to head back to the hotel, as I had already spent a fortune on the taxi to the airport.
Surprisingly though, after all the hullaballoo had settled and I realised I wasn't going to be spending my weekend in Barcelona, I found myself extremely composed. It looked like all those weeks of meditation were finally paying off!
At 7:30 my colleague finally answered what was probably my 27th call, and said in his raspy Australian accent "Ma'amta, what happened? Are you OK?" And that's when I knew I was going to Barcelona again.
It took me an hour and thirty minutes to reach Barcelona from Paris. Barcelona's warmer breeze (as opposed to the chill, nippy winds of Paris) brushing against my cheek transformed my mood from muddled and zonked, to cheerful and content.
I was thrilled that the polite (and handsome!) taxi driver didn't have any trouble locating my hotel. But as soon as I walked into reception and told them my name, the receptionist looked at me like I was Interpol's most wanted illicit drug trafficker: "Sorry, your booking has been cancelled."
"But but but…my friend, his name is Richard, called you to rebook the hotel."
"No we don't have any reservations in your name."
"Can I book it right now?"
Well, this was going to be fun.
The receptionist was kind enough to hand me a map (the size of a yoga mat), and circling an invisible dot, told me to try my luck with some hostels. In reply to which I pointed out that it would also be helpful to know where I was right now.
After walking for about a kilometre, and interrupting people busy at their chores, I found out that in all of Barcelona, the only people who spoke English were my taxi driver and the receptionist at the hotel. I was truly in a soup!
In the depths of my misery, feeling hopelessly lost in the middle of a deserted street, I saw a good-looking man walk out of a shop, pushing a pram.
A man with a pram, I told myself, will not have time or energy to kidnap me, murder me, or sell my body parts. As for rape, that will definitely be the last thing on his mind after a baby. So I ran up to him and quickly introduced myself. "I need your help, please! I don't have a place to stay and I think I'm lost. I'm on my own here; I never once did this before my whole life. I don't know what I was thinking when I booked my flight. The lady from the hotel gave me this map and said I might find some hostels here. Can you help? Do you speak English?"
"Yes I speak English," he said in his Spanish-accented English. It was music to my ears.
I really wanted to hug and kiss him but I had to make do with breathing a huge sigh of relief!
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from India, but right now I'm coming in from Paris. I have friends and colleagues in Paris, but not here."
"Where in India?"
"Oh! You know India? From Bangalore."
"I was in Pune for work once," he replied.
"Pune? Nice place!" I could feel the kinship between the two nations already.
"You speak good English!" I said
"My wife is an American"
(Ah, mystery solved!)
"What's your name?"
"Uh, how do you spell that?"
"X A V I"
And off we went looking for the hostel named Lesseps, and thankfully, we found it without any trouble.
To begin with, I have never stayed in a hostel my entire life, so this was going to be quite an experience. This hostel had wooden doors that were 25 feet tall. It resembled a spooky jail. We rang the doorbell and stepped inside, only to wait in front of another massive cast-iron gate, even taller than the wooden door.
The warden of the hostel was a nice looking, old man. Xavi asked the warden if he knew English or French and the warden promptly replied with a smile that he only knew Spanish and Italian, two languages alien to me. Xavi did the needful on my behalf and assured me that it was a safe place to stay. The hostel room wasn't at all bad for two nights. It had a cold wooden floor, a soft bed, a flat screen TV I couldn't switch on, and a fan that had never been used. I emptied my bags on the desk, not using the cupboard, and took a quick look at the loo — not too shabby!
Interestingly, on the day I was leaving, I discovered that most of the monuments and landmarks I visited using hop-on and hop-off buses and metros, were all within walking distance of the hostel. This confirmed any remaining doubt that I was an idiot and a half!
You can take a closer look at the hostel Lesseps here:
I call this trip foolhardy because:
1) The trip was planned just two days before it actually happened
2) At 28.5kbps internet speed I simply didn't the stomach for any research
3) I was traveling for the first time on my own (and without any weapons)
4) I had no plan in place whatsoever, on what to visit, where to eat, or whom to meet.
For these reasons, this trip will easily qualify as the boldest and dumbest thing I've ever done in my life.
I had gathered the names of a few places that were a must-visit in Barcelona the day before I left. The warden gave me a couple of maps. So I dumped my bags at the hostel and headed straight to one of the most famous streets in the world, "Las Ramblas." It's a forty five minute walk, one right turn and two left turns from the hostel. Given my sense of direction and my proficiency at reading maps, I was very sure I'd lose my way. After all the geography tests I wrote in school, I'm not proud to say that I can only identify India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan on a world map. So my focus while walking up to the "Las Ramblas" was mainly on remembering landmarks.
I rather enjoyed being a confused solo tourist looking in all directions on the brightly lit, beautiful, tree-lined street. The only threat on this street, I had been informed, was pick-pocketing. After all the mayhem I had dealt with, I wouldn't be surprised if that happened to me. Walking on the Ramblas I had an epiphany: I'm alone, I'm alive and I'm happier than than ever! I felt invincible. The only thing that could puncture a feeling so great were my aching feet and the fear of not being able to find my way back to the hostel. It was very simple, two right turns, one left turn and a straight walk down to the hostel. But the trouble was locating the right right turn. I passed almost 8 right turns. All the landmarks I mentally noted betrayed me. After taking several wrong right turns, asking people for directions and with the help of the maps, I made it. Phew! That night I went to bed telling myself, "I'm going to spend the rest of my time in Barcelona safe in this hostel room."
But the next morning, I awoke all fired up, showered, packed my bag, gathered my maps and charged straight to the warden's room. The warden took a break from smoking and smiled at me. It looked like he was happy to see me alive.
"How do I go to Teleferic?" I asked him showing a piece of paper on which I scribbled names of places I planned to visit. He didn't follow so I repeated, slowly this time.
Smart fellow — he promptly opened a Google translator, got up from his seat and gestured to to type.
I typed and pronto he said "Si si, Teleferic!"
"Exactly" I said. He animatedly gave me directions, and what may have been some useful tips, all in Spanish. I said gracias and went out of the hostel even more dazed. I managed to figure out how to go to Teleferic, Le Pedrera/Casa Mila, Sagarda Familia, Parc Guell, Port Vell and a few other places.
Barcelona, I found out, is all about this gem of an architect named Antoni Gaudi, and very rightly so. It is evident in Gaudi's work that his inspiration is nature. In his cathedral, La Sagarda Familia, the most spectacular cathedral I've ever visited, I slumped back against a chair to relax, raised my head to take a look at the roof and brought it down with a stiff neck only after twenty minutes. It's a forest up there, and very easy to get lost. You have to be there to know what I mean. And he's used sculptures of reptiles in his work, how cool is that?
His single-minded focus towards work, his lifestyle, his spirituality, his simplicity, everything about him is laudable. I had goosebumps was watching his biography. Interestingly Barcelona has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Gaudi designed seven of them himself. He is definitely one of my heroes now.
If I had to describe Barcelona in a few words, it would be: gregarious, with perfect weather, rich in cultural heritage, wonderful food, beautiful beaches, a plethora of bird life, and a paradise for shopaholics.
That said, I discovered a new me in Barcelona. Confident, bolder, with a new sense of purpose to life! For this, I'm in love with Barcelona!
Back in India, I resumed conversation with sister:
"Even if I to die tomorrow, I'll have absolutely no regrets"
"WHAT? Die tomorrow? You must be out of your goddamn mind! I'll have to pay your credit card bills. And I can't even share it with dad because he is too old! I've been praying to every God I have come across to keep you safe, at least until you clear your credit card bills…"
Mamta Naidu is an IT professional in Bangalore with a passion to travel the world.