The biggest problem with every journey is the trip home, particularly when that trip requires 22 hours of being awake in airports and planes. There is nothing about that prospect that rings attractive.
I had a text message from Juan, the customer contact for the rental company we use in Madrid. We had planned on meeting at 10:30 on the morning of our departure, the kind of thing that I, the Nervous Traveler always worries about. “He’s going to be late,” “There won’t be a taxi,” “We’ll miss our flight,” “The traffic will be bad because of the rain,” – all things that drive me batty and yet have never happened. Well, in an unusual case of positive travel serendipity, Juan had too many things scheduled on Tuesday morning and so was hoping that he could come by and return our deposit early. In other words an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Tuesday morning broke partly cloudy and dry – another worry out the window. We packed up and left, bouncing our suitcases down the cobbled street towards Opera Square and the taxi stand. Stopping first at ABC News for the Herald Tribune and Times of London, we hailed the first guy in line and told him “Barajas” and climbed in. He asked about terminals and I honestly didn’t remember so I said, “International, American Airlines” and off we went. The drive was traffic free and fine until exited the highway and passed a sign listing airlines, non of which were American. Pulling up at a terminal I’d not seen before, I paid and we went in and were faced with the Aeroflot counter. Wrong nationality, wrong airline. We asked a girl at the Iberian help desk where we were and she said, “Go outside and catch the transit bus to Terminal 4.” This, is why I like to go to the airport early.
The bus ride was quick and uneventful and took no more than 10 minutes. Checking in was another story, receiving a grilling like we’ve never had before. Along with the “Have these been in your possession” and “Did anyone give you something” standards, I was asked how long I’ve owned the suitcases. On to security where I developed a fun relationship bantering about my watch and belt with the young woman at the start of the x-ray machine and had a nice conversation about the Corte Ingles store chain with the gent on the other (he having seen the green store stickers I’d stuck on my laptop) as he admonished me for trying to sneak my iPad through in my bag. We passed and killed the remaining time in the Lounge.
Our flight was pretty easy and uneventful and comfortable, much more so than the trip over when we were surrounded by the binge eating Korean grandparents. One odd thing, two guys in the front of our cabin, one young (30s) and one older, perhaps his father. When the young one would get up to use the lav, the old one would stand outside the door and talk to him through it. Like most airplane bathroom experiences, this one took a long time and the other passengers didn’t even bother queuing up once they realized this was an event. Why the flight attendants didn’t do something about this, is beyond me. They just closed their curtains and made themselves unavailable.
There is something about planes and bathrooms and people that continues to elude me. Why do people take 15 minutes in there? It never fails, every time I get up I stand there forever. Once on this flight I decided to stand and wait and so made my way to the galley. There was a woman already waiting and upon seeing me, she inched even closer to the door as though I was trying to cut her off. I stood there for a couple of minutes (again, why so long?) and looked at the door on the other lav and it was vacant. So the antsy woman was standing there waiting for nothing so I waved her over and she gave me an embarrassed “Thank you.” I returned to waiting and finally the door opened and Mr. Seasoned Business Traveler stepped out. I’d noticed him earlier in ticketing – black t-shirt, crisp slacks, blue blazer, tassel loafers – the Guy I Had Seen a Thousand Times Before. He opened the door and proceeded to stand in the opening. I said “Excuse me” and he replied “I can’t get into my seat yet.” Apparently he couldn’t move 6 inches to the left either.
The sort of good but not so great news was that the flight was getting in a full hour early. This is great if you’re flying home, but not so wonderful if you’re now faced with an additional hour of sitting around waiting for your connection. We landed, got off the plane first and headed down to the immigration hall. Coming around the corner, our free hour evaporated – the place was packed. Perhaps 2000 people on both the US Citizen and Foreign Nationals sides. So many people that the line was outside the ropes. While it moved, it was interminable – a full hour from start to check, probably one of the longest waits I’d ever had. The Sequester, or maybe just too many planes in from Cancun at the same time. I don’t know, but the only saving grace was that the air-conditioning was on “high.” We made it out and went downstairs to the exit through Customs and the same line repeated itself. In the end it was a full two hours from plane to the security re-check. That extra hour had turned into a nice buffer. We were left with only an hour so we had a coffee, sat for a bit in the Admirals Club and got on the plane for home.
This turned out to be a truly perfect trip. It started out with worries about the heat in Sevilla, but we made that work, focusing our touristing on the mornings and the evenings. The weather in Madrid was iffy, but it really only rained hard on us the final day. The sights were wonderful, among the best things we’ve ever visited including Córdoba’s exquisite and incredible Mezquita. And how could it have been better than accidentally stumbling into the Feria de Abril, Sevilla’s annual horse fair? Between the beautiful women in Flamenco dress and the horses in the streets every day, I can’t imagine a more perfect moment for us to have been there. We had the best tapas we’ve ever eaten, finally saw some wonderful Flamenco and had a few nice day trips including Toledo where we got to see the things we missed last time around. Both our apartments were nice and worked out well, in spite of that internet problem in Sevilla. Not a bad problem to have I suppose.
For us, every trip falls under the heading of “The journey is the thing.” For this trip, we added a new one “La vida es mejor in las sombras,” or “Life is better in the shadows,” dedicated to trying to stay cool by walking on the shadowy side of the street while roaming around in Sevilla. But at a higher level, it really is about the journey and more importantly the people we meet along the way. It started with Manuel in the cathedral in Sevilla’s working class Triana district. A pensioner who spends his days chatting up visitors with his incredible wealth of information about he history of his parish. He clearly liked visiting with us, having a bit of Spanish, a lot of knowledge and an unbridled curiosity. He asked where we were from and pronounced My Lovely Wife being pure Andalusian due to her height, blond hair and blue eyes. He was a great guy and we loved our time with him.
Next was the great conversation we had with the French shop owner about the noisy streets. What a great guy, conversing in perfectly French-accented English and loving my stories about the maddening fireworks in China. Purely Gallic, working in the shop for the love of his woman and taking an ironic posture on how it drives him crazy, but such is life.
Lastly, the friend we made at Elmandela, the African restaurant down the block from our place in Madrid. Jose the consummately professional waiter, the perfect mix of solicitous and friendly, the guy who I watched step outside for a cigarette in the rain and smoke it in one giant inhale. He was fantastic. And Aba, the fellow from Mali who was so kind, and so pleasant and so very emotional about the state of his homeland. Two great guys, we’d never had met were it not making the mistake of trying to order the menu of the day at 9 o’clock at night.
Why do we travel? We do it for the head-clearing and the sights. We do it to extend ourselves in another language and to see how other people live. We do it for photographs and we do it for food. We do it to absorb our common history. But mostly we do it for the people, because those little ephemeral connections are what makes it so wonderful.
I’m including one photo from each day of the trip below that is emblematic of what we did, what we saw and how we were feeling –
April 16th, Puerta de Atocha Station, Madrid. Waiting for the train to Sevilla
April 17th, Court of the Damsels, Real Alcazar, Sevilla
April 18th, Feria de Abril grounds, driver tending to his mules
April 19th, We find the only Appaloosa in Spain
April 20th, The Fodor’s Neighborhood Walk, Barrio Santa Cruz, Sevilla
April 21st, Plaza Espana, Sevilla
April 22nd, The Mezquita, Córdoba
April 23rd, Italica, Santiponce
April 24th, Our last day in Sevilla, carriages lined up in front of the Cathedral
April 25th, My Lovely Wife rewarding her favorite street performer, Plaza Mayor, Madrid
April 26th,The mysterious suspended monks, Madrid
April 27th, Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Toldeo
April 28th, Music at Elmandela restaurant, Madrid
April 29th, The Royal Lettuce Collection
April 30th, Gate S47, Madrid Barajas Airport