"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware. - Martin Buber
I'm not sure why, but the universe seemed dead set on me going to Madrid. Planning this trip, I looked at a map of the Mediterranean and had the inexplicable thought, 'I'm going to Madrid'. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, or somewhere so deep inside me it was far beyond the reach of my consciousness. I'd had the same thought when I signed up with International Student Volunteers in my first year of university. There were seven placement countries, but leaving the information session, the words resonated in my mind with such certainty that I whispered them aloud: "I'm going to Ecuador." And I did. Intuition is a funny thing.
So I put Spain on the itinerary, then took it off when I narrowed down the list for budget and time reasons. Then I went to see Lisa the travel agent about a round-the-world ticket, and the itinerary the airline sent her had Madrid on it as a layover. So I told her to extend the layover a week or two since I was going to be there anyway. Madrid was cut from the list again when I scrapped the round-the-world ticket idea and decided to plan my own route. It popped back on when I briefly considered cutting Asia and just concentrating on the Mediterranean and South America. In the end, Madrid didn't make the cut, despite its persistence.
And yet here I am. I looked out the window of the plane at saffron plateaus with grey cliffsides like giants had taken bites out of them, fields with soft, bruise-coloured marbling like tie-dye and a sparse freckling of emerald trees, all cut by a snaking teal stream, and thought, 'Well, that's different'. I couldn't say the landscape reminded me of any I'd seen before.
I was sitting in an Irish pub in Pula, Croatia, drinking a bad cappuccino while I booked my flight from Athens to Cusco, when I almost dropped my forehead onto the bar. The cheapest flight option on TripAdvisor had Madrid as a layover. A layover lasting thirteen hours, if the point hadn't been driven home enough. This meant I would have time to explore, to leave the airport and sample the city for a while.
I may make some clumsy decisions on this trip, but my learning curve is steep and I've got to say, the choice to book a hotel in Madrid was gold. I've been travelling long enough to know that even two hours in a real, horizontal bed with your head on a soft pillow can boost your tolerance for excruciatingly long transfers by at least 25%. Add to that the chance to shower and brush your teeth, and that increases to about 30%. I just had to get to the hotel first.
The taxi driver didn't speak any English, and didn't seem to grasp that I didn't want to be dropped off at ANY hotel in Barajas Plaza. "Hotel Barajas Plaza," I repeated the name over and over again, and round and round we went. "I'm sorry," I sighed when he tried for the thousandth time to express his frustration. "I don't speak Spanish." That's when the same voice that promised me I was going to Madrid piped up again: 'Yes you do, you moron.' I don't know whether it was the exhaustion or just that I'd been on the road so long my language skills were as spastic as Antonio's Honda, but the fact that I'd spent a month in Ecuador as a nineteen-year-old seemed to have slipped my mind. I felt a tectonic shift inside me. As if someone had pressed a button on a remote, I opened my mouth and the address of Hotel Barajas Plaza came out, in perfect Spanish. The driver looked ready to throttle me.
I slept off the 3AM departure and four-hour flight, then went in search of sustenance. Barajas Plaza was about ten steps from the hotel (who woulda thunk?), and there I found a steakhouse and tapas bar called La Torino, 'The Bull'. The waiter recommended the breaded chicken. I ordered watercress salad with eggs and foie gras and blood sausage. "Anything else?" The waiter asked, beginning to take me seriously.
"Yeah," I replied. "What time is it?" I'd assumed there was no time difference between Greece and Spain, but I wanted to make sure before heading back to the airport. The waiter told me five-thirty, one hour behind what it said on my watch. My flight left at midnight.
By some miracle I managed to squeak through security with a bottle of olive oil that I wasn't supposed to have in either checked or carry-on baggage. I went to the check-in counter and was sent to a self-check-in machine which directed me back to the counter. The man behind it (different from the last one I'd spoken to) told me I had to go to a machine. I told him I did and it told me to come here. With a reluctant sigh, he printed my boarding passes and rechecked my luggage. "Any liquids?" He questioned stiffly. When I replied in the affirmative, he said shampoo and contact solution were okay, but I would have to forfeit the olive oil. "It's combustable," he explained. "You can buy more on the other side of security." I figured it would be fruitless to tell him it had been a birthday present from Croatia, and far better quality than I could otherwise afford.
I unzipped my suitcase and took it out, but didn't hand it over. I took it with me to security, hoping beyond hope that they would let me take it in my carry-on. The officers examined the tiny, sealed bottle and discussed it amongst themselves for an agonizing length of time. Maybe they recognized the San Rocco label, one of the best oils in the world. Maybe it was because I was straight-up with them, producing the bottle without being asked. Or maybe it was my innocent, pleading puppy-dog eyes. For whatever reason, they finally decided I could keep it.
I'd enjoyed literally a taste of Madrid by the time I boarded my trans-Atlantic flight, but I thought perhaps it was a place I would like to come back to someday. The pilot's announcement of an eleven-hour-and-fifty-minute flight time elicited groans from most of the passengers. Some pulled their eye masks down. I was too busy scrolling through the in-flight entertainment. You never realize how much you take for granted at home until you're forced to go without it. I'd watched the same two movies on my iPad so many times I could recite them by heart. Now, for the next twelve hours, I had an entire library at my disposal. I felt a marathon coming on.
Bouncing across multiple boarders in a relatively short period of time, you start to relax into the process, so much so that it's easy to lose track of the details. Just as I'd overlooked the time difference from Athens to Madrid, I'd almost left for Peru without a visitor's visa. Luckily the gate official in Madrid reminded me or I would have been denied entrance. After trying to pay for an iced coffee in euros, I drifted toward the information desk at the airport in Lima. "I feel silly even asking this," I said, sheepish, "but what is the local currency here?" I knew how this looked. I had become the very image of the ignorant tourist I hated. I'd just forgotten to do my research.
"That's okay," the man behind the desk smiled. The Andean people have the best smiles - bright and warm and larger-than-life, like the South American sun. He told me the currency was soles, and asked what my final destination was. "Will you be exploring more of Peru after Cusco?" He wanted to know.
"Actually I'm on my way home," I explained. "From Greece."
The smile held on, but the man's brows furrowed. "That's an interesting sense of direction."
I shrugged. What can I say? With my father's insatiable wanderlust and my mother's unique ability to get lost in a department store, there was never much hope for me.
I didn't even feel tired waiting at the baggage claim in Cusco. Sure my eyes were watering and the floor looked strangely appealing, but I was running through a check-list in my head: pick up luggage, exchange money, find taxi. I didn't have to go through customs. I'd gotten that part over with in Lima. Peruvians are notorious hard-asses when it comes to crossing the border. Not only are foreigners not allowed in without proof of departure; we're also not allowed to bring in any product with the word 'Pisco' in the name and can be arrested for failing to declare items subject to tax (liquor is okay; honey, tea and coffee are not). If I ever see another line it will be too soon. First it was immigration. That was an hour. Then customs - forty minutes. Then I had to recheck my bag and go through security before finally sitting at the gate for two hours to wait for the boarding call.
I'd handled it all better than expected. As I've said before, the trick is settling into the journey rather than concentrating on the destination. That way it doesn't seem so far away. By taking things one step at a time - getting a hotel in Madrid, watching movies on the plane to Lima, etc. - the long transfer can stop feeling like limbo and almost start being fun. Having said that, I won't say I wasn't over the moon to finally be here.
I remember my stepfather waxing poetic about France when I was a kid. The way he talked about it was almost annoying, like a starstruck child or lovesick tween: "I remember when we were in France...", "You know how they do it in France..." I never understood until I went to Ecuador, my first trip abroad without my parents, and South America became my France. The hummingbirds and heliconias were mine. The windpipe music and achiote face paint...the fried plantains and ceviche and ginormous butterflies and bird-eating spiders.... It was all mine. South America was my fairy land. Even the dark-age showers I could easily forgive if it meant I got to eat a different kind of passionfruit every morning for breakfast.
The cab driver took me through arid mountains full of run-down houses of every possible colour, past craft shops with ponchos and alpaca sweaters hanging in the doorway, past small, shrivelled old women hawking homemade tamales, and I was more at home than I'd felt in months. The last thing I remembered was looking out the window at a street cart selling plastic water bottles full of fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, and smiling. Then the driver was gently shaking me awake. "Signorita," he murmured softly, "we are here."
Despite my efforts, I wondered if I was getting sick again as I hauled my suitcase up the stone steps to the hostel entrance. After just one flight of stairs, I was wheezing like a fifty-year chain-smoker. It felt like a gorilla was sitting on my chest. Then I remembered; I was in Cusco, 3000 metres above sea-level. There was no oxygen up here. That was why I arrived four days before my tour departure. The guidebooks recommended at least three to acclimate to the altitude.
The portly Peruvian matron in reception took one look at me and shoved a styrofoam cup of coca tea into my hand. No stranger to the naturopathic remedies of the Andies, I accepted only too gratefully.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the use of coca leaves in South America. Steeped in tea or chewed straight, they contain less than 1% active ingredient, and they're unprocessed, lowering the concentration far below that of cocaine. The only kind of "buzz" you're likely get from them is a slight numbing of the gums and migraine relief. Sacred to the Andes, coca leaves are used to ease indigestion, suppress hunger and relieve pain and fatigue. In Peru, they are a ubiquitous and effective treatment for altitude sickness. If you still have reservations, it's noteworthy to mention that coca leaf extract has been used in Coca Cola products since 1885.
Internal clock effectively traumatized, I was simultaneously hungry for breakfast and desperate for a good night's sleep when I arrived in my room. It was one in the afternoon, Peruvian time. The last thing I ate was a snack box of soda crackers and wafer cookies at 10AM on the plane, but my burning eyes won out over my complaining stomach. My plan was to take a two-to-three-hour power-nap, then go find something to eat and spend the rest of the evening taking care of business (answering e-mails, catching up my blog, locating a laundry service, etc.). When I woke up, it was dark out. Oops.
10:30PM. My stomach was cramping, but there was no way I was going to explore the streets of Cusco for the first time alone at night. I remembered that the hostel started serving breakfast at five-thirty, to accommodate travellers getting an early start to Machu Picchu. I slept a few more hours and was again wide awake at four. I didn't feel hungry anymore, but I had enough experience in this area to know that wasn't necessarily a good sign. It meant my body had given up waiting for food and had begun feeding itself on my fat reserves. I felt dizzy as I dragged myself weakly out of bed. Head pounding, I took a shower and unpacked clean clothes with shaky hands.
I was the first one in the dining room when it opened. The only way I managed not to look too desperate or carnal was by trying not to think about the fact that I hadn't eaten in almost a day. I asked for huevos revueltos e cafe con leche. "Sugar?" The same matron who greeted me yesterday inquired. I aways found it mildly offensive when I spoke to someone in Spanish and they responded in English. Was I that obvious?
Runny scrambled eggs had never tasted so good in my life. I slowed down only when the hostess appeared to bring a fresh bread basket or a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, not wanting to look like a pig.The fruit salad was my favourite, piled in a dainty bowl with thin yogurt and homemade muesli. I'd forgotten how good the melon and pineapple were here, the bananas that tasted the way a banana should.