Three days had passed since my arrival in Barcelona and I was still barely clawing at my new life. In spite of having ransacked the market nearly half a dozen times, I was running short of everyday supplies. That evening, cursing my dreadful memory, I headed out yet again to buy some more.
It was 10 in the night when I started making my way back, shopping bags in both hands, feet a little jittery as I navigated through widowed streets. Suddenly, a strange noise like a million church bells ringing started reverberating through the city. Clang-clang-clang! This would die soon, I thought, whatever it was.
Two minutes. Five minutes. Nine, then ten. It continued to rush out relentlessly from every nook and corner like a manic mob. Louder and louder it grew until silence of the night lay completely undone. Heart thumping in dread, I listened attentively to identify the source of that ominous sound. It was the cry of a hundred, thousand utensils banging in sync. Perhaps the locals were protesting against tourists, I thought, as I remembered from day before posters I had spotted in a neighbourhood that told tourists to “GO BACK!” I did not have a local SIM at the time, and thus, no means to communicate with the handful of contacts I had in the city. Gut crumbling in anxiety, I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head to cover my face and hurried back home as fast as my shaky feet would take me. Later that night, I uncovered the truth behind the commotion.
Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain (and home to Barcelona) has a cultural identity and language distinct from that of Spain. Further, its contribution to the country’s economy is massive – almost 20% of the GDP. Thus, over the years, an obvious question has taken shape – why is Catalonia still a part of Spain? In 2017, Catalonia’s bid for independence gained momentum after a public vote in which 90% voted in favour of seceding from Spain.
When I reached Barcelona in November 2017, the situation had snowballed into a political juggernaut as the Spanish government declared the voting unconstitutional. Images of baton-wielding policemen at polling stations made international headlines. Locals would bang utensils in their homes every night at ten as a way of protest.
A few more days into my stay, Catalonia agitations grew worse. Thousands of people would gather on the streets to protest almost every other day, putting me in situations most interesting. For one, buses would change routes or halt abruptly mid-way every time massive protests broke out. The announcements would of course be in Spanish and I would alight at unknown places with no knowledge whatsoever of what was going on. (I had started learning Spanish only a couple of weeks before in India.)
Soon it became normal for me to wade through a crowd of thousands of protestors to reach office. And just like that, I found my new normal.
I was however in desperate need of a break. So I decided to travel to Valencia in Spain to attend the Las Fallas – a festival commemorating Saint Joesph with celebrations involving grand carnivals.
My decision as sudden as rains in November, three days before departure, I mercilessly rattled the keys of my laptop keyboard as I searched for a hotel room online. The only ones available cost 100 euros a night, at least. I could buy one quarter of a pre-owned iPhone with that money. Deciding thus to save money for a phone I would never buy, I proceeded to track down a dubious travel company that arranged camping stays far from the city.
After enduring a painful 5 hours journey, when I reached Valencia, I found it lying as dead as my dreams. Half the roads had been shut down because of the festival. The remaining were sporadically stomped by city buses, their frequency and routes entirely changed. By sheer luck, I managed to find one and alighted at my destination some 40 minutes later.
The campsite was a barren wasteland, the sort of place that in India would be a hotspot for open defecation. Currently, I could spot no trace of life in any direction, intelligent or defecating. Heaving my thrifty bosom, I looked around, clueless. Just then, a man appeared on a bicycle, the person in charge. He led me into a gated area beyond the wasteland. On both sides were parked caravans of all sizes. Outside lay tents, chairs and many other signs of flourishing life and bad taste. It was no wonderland but compared to the wasteland I had just seen, it was comforting.
We kept walking however, further and further until we reached a part of the campsite that was very likely frequented by cult worshippers on full moon nights. All I am trying to say is that it was a dump. In the middle of nowhere, he led me inside a shipping container with a tin door three gusts of wind away from oblivion. Inside were 8 beds. I chose the one farthest away from the door.
That night, seven more guests arrived in the hellhole. Although still fairly alert, I was relieved. Next day, the eight of us together headed out to the city to enjoy festivities. It was a legitimate riot. Fireworks, deafening music, alcohol and a general absence of clothes, it was an EDM festival in disguise. We returned way past midnight.
Next morning, I woke up to find two of my roommates engaging their private parts in an elaborate party of their own. Ducking my head under covers, I waited for festivities to end, but this party went on for over an hour. Fireworks, deafening music and a general absence of clothes, it almost had it all.
My being polluted with memories of strangers rubbing gonads, I travelled to Tromsö, Norway with a friend to see the Northern Lights.
At seven in the evening, with temperatures outside hovering around -8 degree Celsius, we started along with our tour guide in search for the ultimate prize. I remember distinctly the first spot where we stopped – mountains all around us covered with snow, the slight flicker of a green ghost from Nordic mythology haunting the skies. Little did I know, the skies were only just warming up.
Over the next three hours, as temperature dipped rapidly, we continued our chase. At one point, the lights spread across the sky like ripples in water. The next moment they transformed into a head full of long hair caught in the wind. Ridiculously fickle, the lights then skipped and hopped between mountains only to disappear briefly and then explode suddenly all over the sky. Green now, pink then, a violet here, a blue there. There was no way to guess what would happen next. Feet sunk in snow, face numb with cold, temperature now at -12 degree Celsius, I soaked in the most spectacular two minutes of my life.
I returned to Barcelona two days later, magic still swirling in my eyes, and spent the next few weeks cooling my heels. Every night at ten, utensils still voiced the anger of locals clang-clang-clang! Barring a quick getaway to Portugal with a couple of friends over a weekend, I spent most of my time working and wondering where to head next.
A fortnight before Christmas, a friend from office asked me – “Why don’t you come with me to Italy and celebrate with my family?”
Generous invitations such as these are awkward for someone like me. I am not exactly what you would call an ‘outgoing person’. But I remembered then that freezing night in Tromsö, that moment I had arrived at with no burden of expectation and no gravity of the magnitude of surprises travel often has in store. I realized that sometimes to find magic, in life and in travel, one must chase it. So I replied – “Sure!”
(To be continued…)
As told by Harsha.