Archive | 9:45 pm

So Spain

21 Jun

Let’s get back to my intercontinental gad-about, shall we? For those of you who follow me on Twitter (@orangejammies), the entire six-week trip is hashtagged under #PlaneTrainBusFuss. This is my longest post on the blog so far, so if you’re fairly confident 1800 words won’t knock you unconscious, grab a cup of something, sit back, and enjoy.

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I’m not a morning person. Working full-time, hamster-on-a-wheel jobs and running businesses for the last 9 years have ruined my propensity to sleep past 8 am, but yank me out a nanosecond earlier and Shiva’s tandav will seem like a serene waltz through a starchy English ballroom. So what was I, bleary-eyed and nose in cappuccino, doing at Gatwick airport at 5.30 in the morning? Trying to drown out the adrenalized-beyond-caffeine shrieks of a hen party togged out in identical pink feathers. Trying to ignore booming golfers as they strode around eyeing the aforementioned chicks. Trying to be civil to my poor uncle and aunt who were whisking me away to their penthouse on the Mediterranean. This is where you commiserate with the drudgery that is my life.

Even before you board the aircraft for your 2-hour flight to the south of Europe, you know what Malaga will look like. A veritable English suburb, crawling with golfers, gaggles of party girls and British retirees with second homes under a punch drunk Spanish sun. Donning my sunglasses, I strode out of the Pablo Ruiz Picasso airport and into a throng of paparazzi screaming my name, popping flashes and wooing me to pose. Okay, so maybe not quite. We just hopped into a rented car and drove away to Fuengirola. But let it be on record that I like the first story better.

My uncle and aunt’s apartment is white. Cool. Marbled. Bright. With a spiral staircase that leads to their sun-roofed bedroom that leads to a wooden deck that overlooks the Mediterranean that is the reason the word “blue” was born. Forty miles yonder, say hello to the Atlas mountains of Africa.

Did you know Antonio Banderas is a local boy? Puerto Banos has a square named in his honor, and I spent a good quarter hour lusting over the letters of his name: the strong, masterful, lines, the sinfully sinewy curls, the simmering glisten of the bronzed god he is .  Get a move on, OJ-girl. That’s XXX territory four inches away. Aching back to real time, Marbella was next. Playground of the rich, famous, and rich-but-not-so-famous, its sprawling villas discreetly behind walls of foliage, Marbella’s rarefied air is suspended with currency signs. Riyals hang off potted palms, Pounds Sterling drape themselves over tapas tables, Dollars dangle over the glistening sea, and Dirhams bungee jump off the shelves at super-exclusive boutiques. In case you were wondering, it is also populated by people. Typically of the skinny, underclothed variety, their wraps are glamor, air-conditioning and the heady scent of power. And then there was me. Far from skinny or underclothed, splashing undaintily in the waves, collecting perfect and quirky shells for a little boy with eyes the color of Andalusian gypsies. Clearly I’m a local celebrity, though–Marbella beach had a bar named after me. My pet name, to be precise. The one that my uncle and aunt use. That I will not share, so don’t crowd around me now.  I’m 33 years old and get to keep my last shred of dignity until babies arrive.

Costa Del Sol has a thriving weekend market that hawks everything from handmade Italian leather bags to kitchen implements, local music to fresh vegetables. We spent a fun morning people-watching, puppy-petting, jostling amidst strollers and sunburned Brits, acquiring adorable and unnecessary things, then traipsed off to do justice to The Full Irish breakfast, in honor of my aunt. Just so dinner wouldn’t feel ignored and sob in a corner, we danced, supped, and toasted the night away at a performance by the enthralling Divo & Divas ensemble. The sky glimmered over the crash of waves, candles made shadows sway, flavors teased the palate in their own seduction sideshow, and I basked in the bonhomie of old family friends who last met me as a teenager-on-fertilizer.

A night so memorable needed a stellar day in its wake, and the village of Mijas held the promise of just that. Nestled in the mountains, looped around curving cobblestone streets, its whitewashed balconies, brilliant bougainvillaea, high-roofed church, and tinkling donkey carts transport you to a gentler century, and your denim-clad reflection, if you happen to glimpse it, makes you wonder who that stranger is. Ignore her entirely and walk into the world’s smallest chocolate factory. Fancy your own bar of the sweet stuff? Let the Mayan Monkey Mijas be your stage. And us, merely players, conjuring dark cocoa fantasies, cramming our gobs senseless, having to be hauled out kicking and screaming but still loved, the way only family can after you’ve embarrassed them into the dirt.

Why pamper one end of your body and leave the other feeling second-born? (Birth order studies show that younger children are humans too, the little snotty runts.) So tickle yourself pink. Treat your tootsies to a fish pedicure in your own dedicated tank, while sipping champagne and squirming on your plushly perched derriere.  The result: baby-smooth feet and a very giggly aunt-and-niece pair. Add an evening of boat-watching at the Benalmadena marina and a hunt for an ostrich steak dinner, and I was rapidly stocking up on memories of a lifetime.

For all the times in my life I’ve called someone my Rock of Gibraltar, I waved goodbye to my uncle and aunt and trundled off the next morning, to see the Real McCoy. The ginormous bus was packed with tourists, mostly from the UK and western Europe, and I chatted with the friendly Irishman next to me.  A girl from Prague struck up a conversation when I shared I was Indian, and then just as quickly ended it, appalled that I did not know who “Babajee” was.  The bus turned a bend and the Rock came into view.  Rising out of otherwise perfectly flat land, its strategic geographic location is of military (and therefore political) significance to the United Kingdom, and Spain apparently still chafes at the loss.

At the border crossing, a UK visa official got on board and asked to check our passports. Amid the flash of red UK covers, I held out my lone Indian blue. His eyes halted at my visa page. He shook his head. And said I couldn’t go through. A hush descended on the bus. All eyes converged on me.  I blinked, then calmly reasoned. I had been to the United Kingdom on this visa and sailed through immigration. Surely its own territory had no reason to see me as a threat when the country had granted me access?  The border official shook his head again.

You need a one-year visa to enter, he said. Yours is valid for six months.

So let me understand this:  the United Kingdom considers a six-month visa acceptable for tourist entry, but its own territory requires a one-year permit?

That’s right.

She’s only here for the day as a tourist, other voices spoke up. She’ll go back with this bus.

Let me check with my supervisor.

3 minutes later, he was back. It was no go. I had to get off in Spain. The bus couldn’t go on with me in it.

I swallowed hard, collecting my things, and walked to the door with as much dignity as I could muster. “It’s too bad,”  my co-travelers complained audibly, “they let terrorists into the country all the time and won’t let this harmless girl visit for the day!”

Go to the bus station and buy a ride back to Malaga, said our tour guide, and gave me sketchy directions in his hurry to get on with the day.

“It’s a shame! Be safe! Don’t worry! Take care,” my companions called out, as I stepped off the bus, looked the officer straight in the eye and fought back mortification, anger and worry with a savageness I rarely need to employ.  Thank You for Visiting, mocked the board above my head as I walked back into the border town of La Linea, exhorting myself to keep that chin up and draw on the reserves of toughness that have seen me shout off a gunman and tackle house robbers with nothing more than a kitchen knife by my bed.

I assessed my options. They weren’t plentiful. I had barely any Euros, having carried Pounds for Gibraltar, and my cell phone, still on American roaming, was down to its last bar of battery. And since we weren’t in a British-populated principality, nobody spoke much English. With my rudimentary Spanish, picked up in a year of living in California, I found my way to the bus station. Uno billete Malaga, I signed, pulling out my last remaining Euros. How much? The woman in the window held up four fingers, then slashed the air with a horizontal palm. Four and a half euro, man this place is cheap, I thought, until I saw her pointing at a clock on the far side of the hall. Damn. She meant 4.30 p.m. It was presently almost noon. There was no other bus that day. I’ll take it, I said, and paid her, and prepared to wait four and a half hours.

Sitting on an old bench, I saw an old man watching me. He was grey, grizzly, with rheumy eyes and dressed much too warmly for this blazing April day. He nodded, half to himself, and continued his inspection. With nothing else in the waiting area to distract me, I called my uncle and aunt to update them. “We’re coming to get you!” cried my knights in Skoda Fabia. And no amount of reasoning would budge their belief that a towering woman of reasonable sense and experience wouldn’t crumble to pieces without their instant ministrations. So that was that and I now had two hours to kill instead of four. Walking into the strip of shops and block of flats that comprises the satellite town of La Linea, I considered soothing my bruised spirit with some retail therapy. Except, there weren’t any stores of that kind. I could exchange money, buy luggage, check email, rent a car, and eat a sandwich. Those were my options. So I swapped Pounds for Euros, strode into a cyber cafe, and put my time to productive use by writing this post. You’re welcome.

In no time at all, my uncle and aunt had screeched into the town’s sole parking lot and I was spirited back to a universe where border officials play violin concertos and swoosh crimson carpets to welcome me. Over the phone, the Boy’s voice echoed with worry and relief, my uncle stopped ribbing me for a whole day, and a moon-sized platter of fragrant paella was dished to me at dinner, lest the trauma of the episode melt my stores of lard and gasp, unearth a waist.

With fun times and adventure under my unshrunk belt, we flew back the next day. England welcomed us in her usual chilly, wet way, but even the greyness of the skies couldn’t eclipse the radiance of her rape fields and my delight at being back in the Land of Aapri Rani.

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