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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nero goes to Spain!

I had always wanted to go to Spain. But I never knew it would turn out this way.

It all seems quite surreal now.  One evening last year, I saw a video clip of the Pamplona Bull Run and it became difficult to sleep that night. The next morning, it rained while I was going to office, so I pulled over and called up a friend to tell him that we just had to go and run with the bulls.  He insisted I was daft and went back to sleep.

Tomorrow night, I shall be standing in IGI airport, wondering why I am going alone to Europe, that too for a month. My friend could have had been right that day, come to think of it.

For the past two months, this trip notoriously became the most important thing in my sphere.  From the outset, four things were clear. That I was going for the bull run, that I would not do a miniscule ten twelve day trip but would return only after a month or when my money got over, that I would not do the trip in a planned  manner, and that it was going to be a solo affair.

Of course, each of these four things hugely titillate my senses. As a fifth, I decided not to do any internal bookings. No hotels, no transport. The only advanced booking I would make would be my flights from Delhi to Barcelona, and from Rome to Delhi.

Then I opened, and started sending out couch request mail to all and sundry, every day. And the response absolutely amazed me. From Europe’s latin lands came so many mails that made me grin. From Padova, Italy, Sarah Chreyha told me that the dates I was planning to go there, she would be going to her parent’s place, and that I could stay over in the family house. She was also fantastic enough to suggest that she’d show me around two three cities including Verona and Venice. I think I was sold right when she told me about her family house, and I imagined sitting across a large dining table and having dinner with a colourful, noisy and happy Italian family. Hopefully, they won’t be the Don Corleone variety.  I am worried, for Sarah has ‘made me an offer I cannot refuse’.

In Barcelona, my host sounded apologetic that there was no spare room and if I was okay with sleeping on a mattress, on the floor, in the main room.  How can you say no when someone enthusiastically goes out of their way to host you.  In Umbria, my hosts asked me if could get for them, any little souvenir that was uniquely Indian. The couple did make it a point to inform me that they had been to India several years back, that they had witnessed an Indian wedding, and that they had a poster of Shiva in their living room. I promised to gift them an elephant.

 Very soon, I decided that I would visit anyone who said yes to me, and suddenly the Italian leg of my trip also includes - besides Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples - the lesser known but prettier cities of Ravenna, Umbria, Verona and Bologna.

I learnt a lot from people who said “no” to my couch requests too. I would imagine that if some stranger sent me a couch request and if for some reason I could not host them in my house, I would probably send two lines saying that I was sorry but I could not host them without elaborating much on the topic But in Spain and Italy, when people said no, they took care to tell me why. A girl in Madrid told me that her boyfriend had made her promise that she would not host a boy. She felt apologetic and said that we could instead go out for dinner. I thought it was funny for somewhere in my mind earlier, I had figured that Europe was so far ahead and evolved that trivial things like possessiveness would never come up. Of course I was wrong, for humans, whether European, African, Asian, American; black or white; will always remain fallible.
Somewhere else someone told me that their exams were going on, and that my presence would be distracting. I agree, I am quite distracting. Obnoxious too, you feel?

In Pamplona, I could not find anyone willing to host me. In fact they wrote back saying that they would not host anyone during the San Fermin festival.  The population of the town increases from 200,000 to 1 million during the nine days of the festival. So, I pored over a number of forums and spoke to strangers asking about their plans. James Polanco, who has just quit his job in USA, and I shall now be setting forth together from Barcelona to Pamplona for the Bull Run. I plan to bawl loudly if the bulls as much as get within five feet of me. He plans to faint.

And it is in these mails, these forums, these conversations and messages, that the trip formed a soul for me. In the beginning, I was extremely nervous. Makes sense to be that, when you travel alone, when you don’t make any advanced bookings, and when you don’t know the native language. Again, even if couchsurfers do agree to host you, there is always the possibility that they might back out later. I had my fair share of hosts who earlier agreed to host me and later had to say no. Also, how much can you trust a stranger even if he does let you into his house? There were a thousand questions in my head. Where would I go if my host backed out on the day I reached a city? Where would I leave my passport when I was at the beach? What if my money somehow got stolen? Hell, I am an extrovert; I love company, what am I doing travelling solo. Heh, suddenly the rampaging bulls did not seem as much of a tension as these other things did.

But as the days passed by, I think I started letting go. Maybe because I am too lazy to bother, maybe because in the uncertainty of it all, lies all the excitement. Maybe because there is no point worrying. Maybe because one can only try and be cautious. Or maybe because we’ll tackle it all headlong. For I know that a thirty day unplanned trip will bring its share of problems, that it will not be all hunky dory. But we shall see, and know, what we are made of.

As quoted Caeser, ‘Alea jacta est.

And that is exactly the point of a solo trip. For the past two years, I have read a number of articles on solo backpacking trips. Those who have done it, insist that when you travel alone, you absorb more. Many believe that travelling solo gives them perspective and is a path to self discovery. In my two months of unplanned planning, I have come to know that a solo trip is foremost about stepping out of your comfort zone and having the power to let go.

When I could not find a host in Pamplona and was going through forums, someone suggested we form a group and sleep in a large park at night. Hundreds of people do that in Pamplona every year during the San Fermin festival.  There is an incredible amount of partying on the streets of Pamplona during the  festival, and every night once people get exhausted, those who do not book hotels, sleep off in the park. There are Churches and bus stops where one can safely leave their belongings in lockers, and that’s the plan.

In Italy, when I sent a couchsurfing mail to a particular person, she replied saying she knew no English and was using Google Translate to type out the mail to me. But that she was willing to host me for two days, if I would still like to stay over. The reply touched me for she really did not have to take the effort to send me a translated message. But that’s how nice and welcoming the world can be.

And maybe that’s why we should trust it.

And that is why I agreed to sleep off in a park with a hundred strangers in a foreign land. That is also why I replied to the Italian girl using ‘English to Italian’ Google Translate saying that I would love to stay over. Chances are we shall feel terribly uncomfortable and weird, sharing house together for two days, without knowing each other’s language. But in a trip that is meant to be about new experiences, it shall rank among the top, whether comfortable or not.  Not to forget, I am an expert at dumb charades.

Somewhere along all the conversations, I decided to let go. Let go of all fears and insecurities. I have probably reached a stage where even if I lose my passport, I shall be okay. Works for me if they can’t let me leave Italy without a passport and I am not allowed to come back to India.

I leave for Spain tomorrow. But I never knew that it would turn out this way.