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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How I met Lisa - Spain Chapter Three

The story of Granada will start at the gates of the Rambutan hostel, yes the same hostel where we discovered a furry dog, some hippies and... well, and love.


Earlier, I had left Valencia in the morning. As the first bus to Granada was leaving only in the evening, I carpooled my way to the historic Moorish city. Thanks to the times we live in, I managed to find a couple of hostels on my phone Internet while we were driving, and froze on the Rambutan Backpackers Hostel.

When I reached the old part of the city, passerbys  indicated that it was perched right on top of the hill. In the mail the hostel staff sent to me, they informed that it stood right next to a house with orange trees and a cactus bush. As an attachment, they had also sent me a scanned copy of a handmade drawing with the directions. A pub, some bushes, and a few steps stood out prominently in the drawing.

How do you not smile and conjure up a picture in your head when you are told that you live next to a house with orange trees? I decided then that I had probably made the right choice by settling for the Rambutan.

Sacramonte, the part of town where Granada originally grew from, and where the Rambutan is present, is the oldest part of the city. Hilly and unplanned, all the house walls are a delightful white in colour, and lie shoulder to shoulder, right next to each other.  Between the houses, there are small streets that go up and down, never level, and at no point there is space for more than three people to walk side by side. The streets are cobbled and pebbled, and not tarred as the silly ones in our cities.

As I trudged up and down with my heavy backpack,  the Alhambra Palace shimmered with its lights in the background. It lay just 3 Kilometres away, on top of another hill.

I could not find the hostel. If I  found houses with cacti, they did not have orange trees and those that did, refused to have any cacti. Also, I was probably giving the wrong signals to worried owners as I peered over their walls, inspected their gardens and kept going 'Gaah, dammit!' 

After half an hour, I was exasperated. the sun was beating down mercilessly, my back was killing me, and I was probably as close to the Rambutan as penguins are to the equator.

As I passed yet another pretty little White House, a voice beckoned me to stop.

Ladies and gentlemen, we shall take a moment and pause here, for the author has closed his eyes and is smiling like a jackass thinking of ...

Right. Continuing from when the voice beckoned me to stop,

I turned and like magic, a gate opened up to reveal the prettiest girl ever. The prettiest girl ever, in a knee length blue dress. The divine  little creature, actually she wasn't that little, smiled at me and said "Hi, I am Lisa. Welcome to the Rambutan". 

And indeed, suddenly,  I did feel extremely welcomed. Suddenly, the heavy backpack on my shoulders felt like cotton, the hot sun felt nice and warm, and the thing nuzzling close to my thigh...wait, what was that..

I looked down to see a giant black dog pushing itself into my legs, hoping I would pet it's ears. "Oh, he likes you" the divine voice said happily, and I wondered if we had spent enough time for me to ask her if she would marry me. He could go on nuzzling if it made her happy, though a part of me felt quite concerned about his proximity to my groin. But then what is love, if you can't even let a predator attack your manhood.

"Follow me" she said, and I walked behind her, just like Mary's little lamb would. Just that, instead of only Mary and her lamb, there was a giant dog too trotting along, wanting the lamb to pet him.

"His name's Poker", Lisa informed me as Poker poked me for the twenty third time in my groin, lovingly albeit. Good name", I replied, and pushed away the poking monster hastily as soon as Lisa looked elsewhere.

In the next eight minutes, Lisa had taken down my details, had handed me a room key, and had told me about some of the best things to do in Granada. In the same eight minutes, I had rehearsed my marriage proposal speech sixty two times. 

"And you must, must go to the gypsy caves"

"In sickness and health, in rich or poor.."

"Excuse me"

"Errr nothing. So you shall give me a key..err how silly of me..haha I see they are in my hand already. So, nice weather eh"

And with such classy lines, I was trying to woo the most beautiful girl in the world. God save me.

I did not see Lisa that evening again. Neither did I see her for almost the whole of the next day, or the day when I left Granada.

After Lisa left to cater to another guest, and the world seemed dull again, I went for a shower. When I had had a bath and came out, I noticed that unlike other hostels, the Rambutan's dormitory rooms did not have lockers. I was to leave my passport and money in the open? At the mercy of seven others sharing the room with me? Well, they were doing the same. So, I guessed I should be okay with it too.

I walked into the reception again, to make myself a coffee. As you entered, on your right was a little washbasin and a platform for coffee, tea and anything else you wanted to make. On my left lay a huge table who's top surface was an inscribed world map. Straight in front, there was a foosball table, behind which stood a giant, giant shelf full of books from all over the world. A few board games sat along with the books. The room hardly had any space to move through, but it was warm, friendly and I loved it.

At night, I walked down and up, literally, the streets of Sacramonte, lost in my own thoughts. From every fourth or fifth house, a guitar or a violin was being played and in the quiet of  the night, it sounded lovely.

 Granada had a different vibe to it. Or maybe, it was just Sacramonte. In its streets, in its gypsies, in its music, it had a unique flavour about itself. And they were all looked after, watched over by the mighty Alhambra at the top of the hill. I found a little square with a bar sometime later, and sat down to have some paella with seafood and beer. And all throughout, I could hear somebody play the guitar from the house yonder. It is easy to lose yourself in your thoughts, to surrender your conscious mind, in such environs.

The Alhambra kept looking at me, from up above the hill. I bought my tickets the next day and saw the palace and it was as beautiful as they had said it would be.

Two days later, I left the city. But Granada had  taught me something that Barcelona and Pamplona did not. In Barcelona, I had begun my trip. Excited and over enthusiastic, I followed all the guidebooks and in five days saw all  the important sights of the city. Then in Pamplona, I did what I had come for. Run with the bulls. The rest of the time, I was either drunk or dancing. Just like the rest of the tourists. 

But in Granada, I learnt to relax. That, travelling was not about seeing the best sights, not just about eating new things, and marking them all in your notebook or diary, but also about relaxing and taking in the moments. In Granada, we sat for hours on the hostel porch, both on the second and third days, high up above everything else, just sitting, talking and looking at the hills, the trees, the man playing the guitar on a cliffside bench, and the Alhambra. If I could, I would stay at the Rambutan for a month, with all those Germans and Swedes and Brits, storing cornflakes and bread in the fridge just like they did, and sit on the porch and do nothing for weeks at a stretch.

Next time, we'll get a six month visa instead of a one month one.

But I left after three days, for Malaga, with the Rambutan, the Alhambra, the past and the future of the trip swimming in my mind.

Wait, we need to insert Lisa somewhere in that last line, eh?

I saw her on the second night, again. I was sitting in the porch and she breezed in just like that, and Poker ran lovingly to her. When I nodded at her, she asked me if I had seen a flamenco performance in Granada. She was wearing a violet dress that ended just above her knees.

"No, I haven't".

"Want to see an original one? By the gypsies?"

When I nodded, she said she would come to my room at 2 am and if I was still awake, we'd walk through the hills, into the caves, where the gypsies lived and see if we could catch an original flamenco performance.

At 2 am, she knocked and I threw the cologne that I had just sprayed so liberally, and opened the door nonchalantly. We walked out of the Rambutan and for the first time in days, I followed Lisa, instead of my Google maps. We walked past houses, narrow streets and squares. I a, jot sure if Sacramonte had street lights, think it was the moonlight that guided us in our walk.

We climbed a wall, and jumped into some bushes, thankfully not cacti. We walked and I looked at the skies and imagined that we were using the stars for directions. Over the hills, over the Alhambra, over Granada, they shone, silvery and twinkling, in the dark of the night. We stumbled over little rocks, and kicked a few pebbles. Somewhere, I could hear a little stream, maybe to my west. At 3 am, we reached the caves, and saw light streaming out of some of them.

We walked inside and I worried for the little money I was carrying. There were a few people sleeping. We tiptoed past them silently,and found a group of gypsies sitting around a fire, laughing and singing. When she sat down, so did I. They looked at me gravely. An old woman spoke rapidly in Spanish, and someone else shouted back angrily. I looked at my partner, but she did not seem to understand too much of what they were saying either. After a while, they were back to talking and joking and singing.

A woman rose and the people cheered. A man joined her, and suddenly the pace of the music gathered momentum.

In the shadows that the fires cast, I saw the most beautiful flamenco performance that I could ever. And I did so, sitting next to a girl called Lisa, whom I never saw again either.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Barcelona - Spain Chapter Two

So, will you go to a nude beach with me tomorrow?” , she asked.

You know folks, you really should not drink too much with a woman.

But then, I hadn't. It was just my first glass, or so I thought and looked at my glass for an answer. The liquid sparkled in the blue glass, but did not feel in the least to help me out. Instead, I saw in it, all the people I had met in the last four days.

I looked up at her, and she smiled.

Somewhere in that moment, the city got defined for me. Oh Barcelona.

Silvia and I had met only a couple of hours earlier. I really do not know why. Two weeks earlier, I had put up a post on facebook about my trip to Spain, and she had asked me if we could meet up when I was in Barcelona. A luxury travel company wanted an Indian partner, and Silvia wanted to discuss if I could get the company where I worked, to partner them. As we sat in the bar, I wondered if I should tell her that I had quit my job.

Two hours earlier, I was scampering across the road from my hostel, towards Maria Cristina station, to take the train to Parallel station where we were to meet. I was already fifteen minutes late. As I ran down the station stairs, I had no clue which metro line to take.

Scusa?” said I, in my best Spanish accent, to a passing girl. When I had asked her, she told me that she was taking the same train line, and that we could walk together. In the twenty two minutes it took the train, and us, to reach Parallel metro station, we had figured out that we both loved writing. She told me she was an English language teacher and I yelled. My station approached, and as I jogged out, we promised to meet later for drinks. As I stepped out of the station, just like everywhere in the city, a man was sitting and strumming the guitar. Oh Barcelona.

No, we didn't meet up later. Maybe some other day, some other train, some other part of the world.

When I saw Silvia, she was dressed in an Indian kurta. We greeted each other in the traditional European way of a kiss each on both cheeks. Her skin was light, and I would never have figured that she was Venezuelan had she not decided to tell me later on.

Presently, I was trying to decide if I should start wondering that when people asked you to accompany them to a nude beach, it could possibly suggest that they were hitting on you. Or maybe it was a Venezuelan culture thing, to ask to go to a nude beach together. In India, you ask for coffee, maybe in Venezuela you ask if the person would like to accompany you to a nude beach.

Of course, I had not drunk enough absinthe to come to such asinine conclusions. I looked across the dimly lit bar, and a couple of Germans were arguing about something at the far end. A prostitute stood at the door smoking a cigarette and Silvia smiled at her. She knew Raval really well, Silvia did.

I don't think I could do that”, I told her laughingly.

But isn't that what your trip is all about? New experiences? Trying out new things?”

She had a point. You know, I am quite sure she wasn't hitting on me at all.

Let us go back two hours again. When we had met near the station, she had asked me if I would like to go to her favourite part of Barcelona. I asked where, and she had muttered “Raval”. So we walked from our meeting point, across La Rambla – BarcelonaĆ¹s most lively and touristy area, full of clubs, bars and performers – to Raval – the poorer neighbouring grotto with small shops and bars, dingy looking hostels, but ethnically Barcelona most diverse side of town.

We stopped at a bar to eat some rice and turkey. Of course with some Cerveza, the spanish word for beer.

So, Neeraj, you like Barcelona?” I nodded, though I was desperately trying to work the knife through the hard turkey.

Silvia has been to over fifty countries. She left her house when she was 17. I asked her which was her favourite city in the world, and she said it was right there, in Barcelona.

Barcelona has glamour, you know. And it has personality. It has Gaudi, and it has people from all over the world. It has seventy year old women roller blading to the nearby grocery store, it has kids walking their dogs while they are skateboarding. It has men kissing each other on the streets, and it has people with every single hairstyle you could possibly think of. I was walking down the road on the first day, and there was a six foot three man, incredibly built, walking absolutely topless, a bag strapped on his shoulders, lugging another suitcase, on one of the busiest roads in the city. He did not care. Surprisingly, no one else did either.

The city has flair you know.

Character”, I told her between mouthfuls. “Barcelona has character.”

You must try absinthe, you know, especially since you have never tried it before”

I wasn't sure if I wanted to get drunk, but this trip was about trying new things so I agreed.

So, we left the place and headed off in search of the vile drink. Minutes later, we were inside a bar with furniture so old that it looked antique, with lights so dim that I would think that they were candles, and a bar table so big that I thought it would never end. “This is where the first bar scene of ZNMD was shot”, she told me and I rolled my eyes. We both laughed.

Minutes later, the barman served us two glasses of the much mentioned drink. To mix the right amount of absinthe and water, you first put a fork horizontally across the glass. Then taking two cubes of sugar, you place them on the fork and pour ice water on the cubes. The cubes melt and fall along with the water into the glass.

That, senor, is how you drink absinthe”, she told me while raising her glass, following her tiny demonstration.

And that is probably why I like to travel. Maybe to have a Venezuelan tell me how to prepare a glass of absinthe. Or sit across an Israeli man in a bar and have him tell me how it is to come out of school and serve in the army for three years. I don't want to spend half my life sitting on an office desk.

You know Silvia, I think I can teach english langugage in Mexico for 6 months. And then South America.”

Absinthe, originated from Switzerland in the 1800s, and became very popular in France, especially among Parisian writers in the mid 19th and early 20th century”, Silvia informed me. “Oh, Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh drank it regularly”

To Vincent, Ernest and Oscar then.” I announced, raising my glass.

One day, we shall have a Neeraj next to their names.

And that is approximately when, two hours from when I first met Silvia, she asked me if I would go to a nude beach with her.

I don't think I could do that”, I told her laughingly.

But isn't that what your trip is all about? New experiences? Trying out new things?”

Si senorita. But to be nude publicly. I don't think I would like that too much.”

You are on your way to become a traveller, my friend. And the first step is to embrace what comes your way. You don't have to like it, but try it, and then know if you like it or not.”

We stayed at the bar for an hour more. And then, just like that, we bid farewell.

On the entire way back to my hostel, I pondered about whether I should do it. I had asked her at the bar where the closest nude beach was, and of course it was in the city itself. Though I wasn't drunk, the idea started becoming appealing. Not to go with her, because I cannot imagine going with anyone I have ever spoken to, or known, or befriended. It sounds catastrophic to me to go with someone I am friends with. But it felt appealing, ony because it sounded a hundred times more dificult than running with the bulls.

When I got off the train, I was still thinking. Ahead in the distance, a man in white trousers and a white vest, held a mike and was singing a Catalan song. A system blaring music, and a small hat for coins, gave him company. Three women walked ahead of me, and as we got closer, one of them broke into a little jig. As we passed him, his eyes fell upon her, and he advanced. Taking the surpised woman into his hands, he drew her close to his body and started to dance. She looked shocked at first, embarassed next, and then started giggling. Her friends clapped loudly and so did I. The man continued to hold her close, and kept dancing, moving her around the small strip in the subway, much to her delight.

After about a minute, I walked away smiling. Oh Barcelona.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Day I ran with the Bulls - Spain Chapter One

As I desperately tried to hold onto something, anything, to break my fall, only two thoughts crossed my head. One, if I was at the end of the heap, the bull would get me first. And two, could it really all end here? How the hell could my script go so wrong.

I turned to look, and the bull stared back at me...

A day earlier, Pamplona transformed from the sleepy town that it is, to one of the most colourful places in the world, as it does every year on 6 July - the date of the opening of the week long San Fermin festival.

People walk all day long on the streets, singing songs and drinking as if there is no tomorrow. Although the opening ceremony was at noon, even at 9 am people were in the traditional red and white attire of the San Fermin, inspecting new things to buy, drinking Sangria, or just walking in the streets. As noon approached, everyone crowded in the town hall square. It was so jam packed that there was not an inch of space between two bodies. And then, at noon, Pamplona went crazy, just as it does this time of the month, every year. All around people started throwing Sangria at everyone, even at the people looking from the balconies above. Women were lifted off their feet and hoisted on the shoulders of their friends. Not just that, every time a girl was hoisted, she was egged on to remove her top.

Some of them did. And every time a girl did, the whole crowd cheered as one. Men tried to spray Sangria all over her naked body, some even tried to touch, but everyone laughed and clapped when she alighted from her pedestal, from her two moments of complete liberty. We shall not argue on the wisdom of the choice.

Some of them did not. When they didn´t, the crowd booed. But mark my words, all in good spirit. Everyone laughed, boy, girl, man and woman. It amazed me, that the whole performance did not feel lecherous at all. Here were men urging women to go topless, and whether they obliged or not, everyone laughed and cheered and hooted.

On the opening day of San Fermin, nobody sleeps in Pamplona. We all walked on the streets the whole day, drinking and laughing and spraying each other. When people passed out, they slept in the small grass beds next to the streets, or in the huge park. Pamplona's San Fermin is an unusual festival, and also arguably one of the craziest festivals around. and yet, despite a hundred thousand people being in an inebriated state, there wasn't one single instance of violence all day.

What i did not know then, as I sauntered happily through the street was that it was the very same route that we would have to take during the bull run. I wanted to do the bull run, on the very next day itself, day one. When I told that to Alberto, a cheery bearded Spanish lad of twenty something, he remained me of a few things that ten people already had.

One should avoid running on the first day, Sunday. It is the day when all the tourists want to run, and have no idea how to. Rule two, always sleep well on the night before the run. Rule three, do not be drunk before running. Rule four, no matter where you start, how fast you run, the bulls are faster. They will always overtake you. So don't get in the way. Run on the sides.

We drank all night. I danced all night.

So, I have no idea why at 7 am Sunday morning, first day of the Bull run, I made my way to the starting line. Maybe I did because I couldn't find my friends. They had all left the dance floor long ago. Maybe because, I had just one more day in Pamplona and I wasn't sure if I left it to Monday, I would one hundred percent complete it.

Or maybe, I wasn't thinking at all. Maybe I like to worry in the moment and not before.

As I walked to the starting line, I thought about the rules. Rule one. Well, I would look out for the locals and follow their lead. Rule two. Hmm, my legs did feel quite tired. But it was only 800 metres, plus we would get a head start. Rule three. I wasn't drunk, the last drink i had was maybe five hours back. Or was it four? Rule four. The sides it was going to be.

As we stood there, a number of work personnel came in their go- carts and cleared the road off all the plastic, the bottles, and every single object lying uncared for. Minutes later, the whole road was sprayed with water. Were they doing it to slow down the bulls? Wouldn't we slip? As the clock ticked, the doubts increased. You have been up the whole night boy, dont do it when you are this tired. C'mon, it's only eight hundred metres. I looked at the street. It was narrow, maybe twenty feet in width, or less. Some of that would be taken by the bulls. How would all of us run?

The first day of the bull run has the maximum runners. What I did not know then was that the Sunday of the 2013 San Fermin had the maximum runners ever.

It got closer to 730 am. Only half an hour more. I found a couple of friends in the running street. James and Capo. The guards were now cordoning off the running street. Those who were waiting in the front, two three hundred metres from the finish line were told to go off to another street and make their way back to the starting point off the race. The guards did it cleverly. They would walk casually among the unsuspecting runners, and after every couple of hundred metres, they'd form a horizontal line. All the runners in front of the line were then asked to go off to another street and find their way back to the starting point of the race.

We all stood eight hundred metres from the finish line at 740 am.

The crowd had taken their positions long back. As early as 6 am, some people had gathered near the wooden barricades at the corner of the last bend, fifty metres from the finish line, and had hoisted themselves on top to get a grand view. In the streets of the race, people who lived there, were watching us from the balconies. And many of them had rented out their balconies to the tourists for viewing the race. People had paid upto 80 euros to view from the balconies. 80 euros for 2 minutes of viewing time.

All around me, runners were discussing their strategy. Some stretched themselves, some jumped, some just looked grim. Everyone was nervous.

A lady was announcing something in Spanish. I couldn't bother about her. All I could think was for the race to begin. The minutes passed by miserably slowly. Also, there was no space to move, there were so many runners. And we couldn't move ahead as the cops stood firmly in front of the first row of runners.
To egg ourselves on, we sang football songs. We jumped as we sang, and the people in the balconies joined in the singing.

At 755, the cops moved away and we were allowed our head start. Some people ran ahead, some stood there. We kept looking back, waiting for the first gun shot that would signal that the race had started. The second gun shot, that would be fired moments later, would signal that the bulls were on their way.

As we moved forward, everyone in the balconies cheered. It felt good.

It all feels good till the first gun shot. That is when the screams begin. That is when you stop jogging, walking, and start running. And when the second gun shot is fired, everything then becomes a blur.

I waited for the second gun shot. A voice inside told me that all I needed to do was to run on the sides. The first people to see the bulls are those in the balconies, and they are the first to scream as well. Within moments, I could feel bodies push me from behind. Some of the runners had already started panicking.
There wasn't time to look back to see who was pushing. There wasn't time to do much. So, I ran in the centre of the street, and again changed course towards the inner side as fast as I could. The shouting intensified.

About two hundred metres from the end, the first bull passed me. It was huge. I don't remember if it was the screams of the people or the sounds of the bull's feet pounding the ground that made me notice it first. It was soon followed by two other bulls, and as we ran, our hearts raced faster than our legs. James had asked a friend to click our video as we ran, but once the race began, I can guarantee that no thought of picture, video, glory, celebration struck us at all. We were running for our lives, and maybe one can forgive the mind
to ignore trivial things like the camera then.

And then came the finish line, only thirty metres away. And that is when the last of the bulls decided to do what we never expected it would.

It stopped.

And then, it turned. Towards the crowd.

In a moment, all hell broke loose. Everyone started screaming. A few people standing on the sides, actually fell off the top of the barricades, but on the other side. It all happened so fast that I really do not know what happened. The next moment, I was heavily pushed from behind and I slammed into the guy in front. Man had, as usual, fallen prey to panic. Ahead one person tripped, and all the ones following fell like a pack of cards right behind him. As I saw the girl in front of me crumble, and her feet getting entangled with mine, I struck my arms desperately in the air hoping to find some support that would break my fall. As I stumbled, and willed myself to somehow stay on my feet, I could feel the beast right behind me. The next moment, my feet flew underneath me.

As I desperately tried to hold onto something, anything, to break my fall, only two thoughts struck me. One, if i was at the end if the heap, the bull would get me first. And two, could it really all end here? How had my script gone so wrong?

The next moment I lay flat at the end of the heap of people on the ground.

I turned to look, and the bull stood, only three metres away. I don't think I was scared in those moments. All i felt was pure disbelief. It really couldn't all end here. And honestly, the run hadn't been too difficult. Hell, I wasn't even tired. C'mon, not like this. Heh, in hindsight, I think I love how ridiculously biased my optimism is.

I looked at the bull, and it looked back at me. It might have been for a second, but in that case, it was probably a really long second, the longest second I have known. The next instant, it struck me that the bull really wasn't moving and was just staying put. Somehow I pulled myself from the heap and stood up. Someone screamed, and I wonder if I should have stopped to check.

But I ran. And crossed. The finish line.

Later I was told, that the bulls usually don´t do anything if you are flat on the ground.

We were back to drinking in the evening, and dancing in the night.