Elephant Riding in Rajasthan: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

“Ok, you have one minute to decide: ride elephant, walk.”

Ali swung around, eyebrows raised. His heavily-decorated tuk tuk’s engine shivered as it halted to a stop and he used his leg to steady it. I looked at Hayley and took a deep breath. “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

The city I most looked forward to visiting in India was Jaipur, a metropolis dubbed “The Pink City” that is famous for its salmon painted buildings and the Amer Fort. Once we’d gotten our bearings in Delhi and Agra, Hayley and I were set to enjoy endless lassi yogurt drinks and climbs to some of India’s most jaw-dropping forts and palaces.

Other travelers told me that Jaipur rises out of the desert like a mirage, but we rolled in on a sleeper train that was delayed several hours through a seedy part of town. The porter knocked on the door and motioned for us to get off. Jaipur, after Delhi’s chaos and the scam-laden town of Agra, was already a dream.

Ali stood, arms crossed, waiting to take us to Hotel Kaylan. Though illiterate, he pulled out a journal that was full of recommendations and reviews from other traveler. He stood up and opened the compartment under his seat, taking out a photo album so we could settle on an itinerary.

Apart from the city’s main sights, like the various forts and palaces, the Janta Mantar and the Hawa Mahal, he pushed the Elefantastic park, allowing us the opportunity to paint, feed and swim with the pachyderms. After all, the Rajasthani state is famous for its Indian Elephant festivals and breeding grounds, and elephants have been used for centuries in trade and commerce. What’s more, one of Hinduism’s most beloved gods, Ganesh, the god of good fortune, is depicted as an elephant.

Ali drove us to the Monkey Temple at sunset. Animals are quite commonplace in the streets in India – not only are sacred cows able to freely roam cities and eat all the trash they can find, but we saw goats in rickshaws, pigs and warthogs complacently lying on patches of cracked cement, and now monkeys swinging about temples as the faithful prayed.

India is different when it comes to animal treatment. As an American, I’ve always had a pet and have been taught to respect animals. My parents contribute to the National Parks System and sent me to summer camp as a kid, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. That said, I eat meat and would probably defend a human over any other four-legged creature.

I found India to be a strange paradox: Gandhi once said that you can measure a nation on how they treat their animals, but there were scores of abandoned creatures. In fact, I didn’t see an animal on a leash until our last morning in India.

We spoke softly to a man who carried around a bag of mangoes and spoke good English. Despite leaning on a cane for support, he’d been climbing up the slippery slope that wound up a steep mountain a few times a day to feed the massive flock of Rheus Langur monkeys that lived in the vicinity of three small temples.

We’d given the Amer Fort a full morning before hiring Ali to take us to the Mughal markets for shopping. But I was still faced with the decision of whether or not I’d want to ride an elephant up to the magnificent, sprawling residence. We spent the breezy night up on Hotel Kaylan’s terrace restaurant, sipping fizzy soda water flavored with lime and salt. While Hayley settled something with her bank, I dove into researching elephant treatment in Rajasthan. 

Part of the hesitation about the ride came from participating in the Travel Blogging Calendar to raise money for Thai elephants. After being clued in to exactly what happens to elephants when they are tamed there, I would have been horrified to support a rehabilitating practice.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indian Government opened and has sponsored an elephant compound since 2010, meant to be a refuge for the pachyderms and a tourism center for Indian elephants. There’s also an Elephant Wellness Office to which abuse and mistreatment can be reported.

The 100+ elephants working at Amber Fort have specific rules about how many trips they can make per day and are limited to two passengers, plus their Mahout, or handler. In fact, most are able to stop working for the day by 11am, before it gets too hot. No downhill trips are permitted.

But get past the first few pages of Google, and the horror stories crop up – elephants dying of heat stroke, of mahouts being trampled to death, of lack of funding for sick and suffering animals. I didn’t even bother investigating how the animals were trained.

The issue, of course, is not black and white. As animals have traditionally been domesticated by man for millennia, and this sort of tourism is crucial to many communities in India, I began to weigh those points as well. The Novio has trained horses and dogs, and his family relies on animal to earn their living, so would I be hypocritical by refusing to take the ride when I’ve ridden horses and camels?

By the time we went to sleep, I was still uneasy about the decision I’d have to make. I’d imagined elephants would be a part of my India experience, just as dosas and a guru reading my chakras and learning to drive a tuk tuk were.

Ali showed up early the following day to pick us up and take us for a lassi before driving to the palace. He pulled off the road adjacent to the Maota Lake and asked: to the elephants, or are you walking up?

I had asked his opinion on the ride, and he admitted that he wouldn’t think about doing it. Ever. Full stop. Ali is a spiritual and respectful man, so I trusted his judgement.

We set off walking, having to dodge hawkers and other tourists on the ramp and stairs that lead to the Suraj Pol, or Sun Gate.

When I saw my first elephant, trunk decorated with paint, I gasped. Having only seen elephants in zoos, I couldn’t believe I was just a few paces away from one – so surprised, in fact, that I narrowly missed a pile of fresh poop.

The climb itself was incredible, and we passed by the elephants through narrow gates. I didn’t, for one second, regret my decision to forgo the ride – it looked shaky, so I wouldn’t have gotten any good photos anyway.

Watching the passengers dismount in the lower courtyard, called the Jaleb Chowk, the elephants turned around and went back the way they came. I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful to watch them sway as they left the sun gate and went back for the next batch of passengers. 

Elephants, in Hindu culture, represent strength, prowess in war, majesty and royalty, and a vehicle to the divine world. But in no way does a vehicle to the divine world mean sitting on top as the elephant trudges up a slope.


  

This article was written as part of Contiki Storytellers’s campaign for Costa Rican sea turtles (please watch the video above!). Animals are an important part of ecosystems, after all. I cannot tell you it’s right or wrong to ride an elephant in India or Thailand or elsewhere, merely that you investigate and make the decision based on your personal feelings. I am not a conservationist or an animal rights activist – I’m just a traveler who didn’t feel right taking an elephant ride. I was not paid for this article.

What’s your take on animal tourism? I’d love to hear from other bloggers like Green Global Travel, Wanderlusters and Hole in the Donut, who are into responsible tourism.

The Amer Fort is located 11 kilometers from Jaipur in the village of Amer and is open daily from 7:30am until 5:30pm. Foreigners pay a 200 rupee entrance fee (about 3€). The cost of riding an elephant is 1000 rupee for two people, plus a tip for the driver.

Learning by Watching and Doing in India

There is no way to prepare yourself for India. Not by reading books or watching Monsoon Wedding or scouring the latest edition of Lonely Planet.

Nothing can prepare you for the heat. The crush of bodies. The smells (both good and bad). The menagerie of animals eating trash on the street. The traffic. True to every single thing I heard about it, India was an assault on the senses.

I woke up groggy every morning from listening to the cacophony of tuk tuk horns that had my ears ringing all night. Every meal seemed to taste better than the last. I was humbled by the simplistic nature of the barefoot kids who were happy in their ambivalence. I have a newfound love for Bollywood tunes, marigolds and milky chai tea.

India got under my skin in a way that only Spain has.

But India comes with a learning curve as steep as they come. After more than 24 hours of travel from Seville to Delhi, and countless more hours awake, Hayley and I were burped out into a muggy, overcrowded city, which was beyond foreign. And our room wasn’t ready either, so we gingerly ventured into the mess of streets in the Kailash Colony area of South Delhi, only to get lost, whine at one another and take a tuk tuk to the closest thing on our map, the Lotus Temple.

After a nap and shower (and a fresh change of clothes), we wanted to see the Jawa Masjid temple in Old Delhi, in the shadow of the overpowering Red Fort. We took the metro to the wrong stop, couldn’t fend off the dozen tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers who tried to pick us up. We walked through a part of town where it seemed that tourists were anywhere but, finally using the call to prayer to direct us to the beet-colored Muslim mosque.

We had a disastrous first meal in India at the celebrated Karim’s (WHY would we order mutton? We must have been that jet lagged…), and then after having women ask to take pictures with us Hayley the streets and dodging every sort of traffic imaginable, including pushcarts, cows and people crawling, we treated ourselves to frozen yoghurt and a sleep not punctuated by anything else but blackness.

As we crawled into the tuk tuk the next morning, I was not excited. In fact, I was ready enough to leave India without seeing the Taj or eating aloo gobi or giving it a second chance. I kept my feelings silent to Hayley for the entire day, realizing that this was her dream, too, and that the only way to make up for the previous day was by opening my mind and heart back up to incredible India.

We soon found that adapting to locals’s customs was the only surefire thing we could do to not stick out as a gora as much as we already did. We watched, and we repeated.

Customs and Religion

India is full of idiosyncracies, especially across regions. In such a large country, each part of the patchwork is just a little different from the rest. I maintain that just walking across the street, one can see everything and nothing, an array of headgear, mustaches, body types, sari styles, skin tones and accents. It’s not called a sub-continent for nothing!

The head bobble: Ah, the Indian head wiggle. While in Delhi, Hayley and I didn’t see much of the ever-famous head movement that is used to communicate both yes and maybe.

 

But when we got to our hotel in Jaipur, run by a family from Kerala, we were taken aback but the range of motion used when communicating a simple yes or no. It took us a few days to perfect, but on our last day, we had a conversation with a five-year-old girl from Pune, in English, who mostly answered by wiggling her head. Learn it and love it.

Clothing: Other travelers suggested buying a salwar kameez, the long tunic worn over loose-fitting bloomers, and not bringing sandals, but sturdy sneakers. I figured we’d buy something in India, but those salwar blouses looked far too hot for the 90° and humidity. 

We did stick to modest clothing, but in urban centers like Delhi and Mumbai, we saw younger women sporting everything from dresses to leggings to saris. Dress modestly at all times, but wear what’s comfortable and breathable. Just like the Camino, we brought clothes that would dry easily and a bar of laundry soap. I caved and bought sandals, as well – my feet couldn’t take it!

Men holding hands: In Spain, many female teenagers hold hands with one another. In India, it was mostly grown men. We observed, and we did, but only for fun and because we love each another.

Bartering: It’s common knowledge that there’s an added gora tax in India – if you’re a Westerner, you’ll have a more inflated price than an Indian. This was evident in none other than the Taj Mahal, where we paid ten times as much to see the world’s most beautiful building (and elbow people out of our pictures).

Bartering is quite common in India, for everything from taxis to clothing. We couldn’t really watch locals haggle, but we’d watch them walk away, only to have the salesman follow and seemingly offer a better bargain. I personally like Hayley’s take on bartering: only offering the price she was willing to pay, and repeating that figure over and over!

Touching Feet: One morning, we found ourselves at the Agra train depot on our way to Jaipur. Our train had not only moved tracks, but had also been delayed several hours. As we staved off sleep and tried to take in everything around us, a crawling man approached us and touched our feet as we watched, bewildered. 

As it turns out, touching feet is a sign of respect called pranama, and it is usually performed by children to elders, or by women to their husbands. After leaving us (and asking for money), he did the same to other travelers, who shooed him away.

Travel

No getting around it – there are 1.2 billion people or so in India, and they’re mostly crammed into its major cities. The sheer amount of bodies and cars and rickshaws and random cows on the street are enough to make you considering a private driver (we did in Agra and Jaipur).

Crossing the street: As Todd from the hilarious show Outsourced quips, crossing the street in India is like a real-life game of Frogger with people. When we’d timidly set out to get from one side of the road to another, one of us would pull the other back, until we decided to stick with big packs of locals and cross when they crossed, or just start walking and hope we didn’t get hit.

After all, the tuk tuks always seem to find a place to squeeze into!

Tuk tuks: Our favorite way of getting around was by tuk tuk, which looked like glorified tricycles with a backseat and a roof. Not only is this option economical, but also hilariously scary when you’re zipping through traffic.

We saw entire families cram into one backseat, so we treated our trekking bags like small kids and stuffed them between us so as to evade possible bag snatchers. We also learned early on to ask the price of your trip and reach an agreement before getting in (head wiggles works), and please keep your limbs inside the moving vehicle. May not be Disneyland, but the same rules apply.

Trains and Undergrounds: We hadn’t yet been assigned seats (India Rail’s website is the most inefficient and confusing mess of words ever), so we inquired at the ticketing office.  The elderly woman scribbled something on our printout and directed our gaze to the electronic board, which announced comings and goings.

It had been easy to find out seats the day before en route to Agra, as train cars were clearly labeled, and the train stopped completely on the tracks for five minutes. First class seats are assigned, whereas lower classes have simple wooden benches and people cram into the compartments.

When our delayed train finally showed up, patrons were jumping onto the platform from a still-moving train. There were close to 80 cars, and not one was labeled as first class. A man snatched the ticket out of Hayley’s hand and showed us onto a sleeper car. 

We tried to protest as we were shown a berth where an elderly couple sat drinking chai. The morning before, we’d shared a table with a wonderful older couple who had shared stories as we had a complimentary breakfast. Snackless and exhausted from an early wake-up call and over waiting, we fell asleep right away, and when we woke up, the couple was gone.

I ventured out to see if there was a snack car, or at least someone who could tell us where we were and ended up in third class. It was muggy and I had about 100 eyes on me. Turning on my heel, I reported to Hayley that we were on our own until we saw the station. As we watched out the window, Rajasthan’s deserts and stark hills soon came into view, and we arrived to the Pink City three hours after we were meant to. (for more on trains, check out this episode of Outsourced)

Delhi has an underground system that was a life and penny saver when we visit the capital city. While the system itself is not complicated, we found out the hard way that you have to pay in exact change to get a token, which you then place into a machine. This token must be kept until you exit the system.

We were delighted to find that every train has a specially designated “Women’s Only” car, meant to keep gropers at bay. The cars were clean, roomy and air-conditioned, though we were in for a shock when we arrived to the hub at Central Secretariat, where we had to change platforms and run to the other end of the train for the women’s car. We did as the Indians do: pushed hard!

There’s also hella security in the underground. Apart from having to actually pass your bags and body through scanners, there’s always a man with an AK-47 right at the entrance to the trains. I can honestly say I felt safe in India!

Food

Confession: the real reason Hayley and I wanted to go to India was for the food. My mouth watered for baby corn masala, naan and fresh coconut water from the moment we touched down in Mumbai. Thanks to my strong stomach, I had zero problems with food while in India.

Indian meal times are similar to Spanish meal times, but a tad earlier – breakfast usually before 9, lunch around 1 and dinner at 8 or so. To everyone who told me not to eat street food, I both love and hate you – so much of it looked so enticing, from fresh coconut slices to fried churro-like candies.

Meal time was one of our favorites – we could relax, plan the rest of our day and tuck into delicacy after delicacy. I have a new appreciation for vegetarian cuisine, for long meals and for using my hands and pushing pieces of bread as a utensil. 

Safely eating: “No, no, you eat this way.” The man in 32K next to me shook out the dried spices and sugar into his mouth, chewed it up a bit, and spit it in his napkins. “Very nice breath!” he said with a smile, and I followed up my Indian dinner on the plane following suit.

I clearly know less about Indian food than I thought.

After a disastrous first meal at Karim’s, we decided to give its second branch, near Humayan’s Tomb and the Hazrat, a try. Tucked into a small street in the Muslim Enclave, the place oozed Far East. The wait staff lead us to a table in the corner, under and air vent, and the power went out as soon as we ordered.

A British couple sat next to us, sharing our table and their stories of three months of non-stop travel around India. They explained things on the menu to us and warned us against eating anything that was able to reproduce. Paneer, a bean curd tofu, stuffed chapati and aloo gobi became our staples during the week, and we mixed them with different sorts of sauces and curries.

We also tried to avoid uncooked food or anything fresh. I missed vegetables and yoghurt after a few days, as well as beer. Taxes on alcohol are exorbitant in India, so lay off the slosh if you want to spend your money elsewhere. I did order a “pitcher” of beer at Leopold’s that was easily three litres.

Water bottles: India was just on the brink of the hot weather when we went in mid-April. Warned not to drink the water, we were sure to have a few bottles on hand for drinking and brushing our teeth, and were willing to shell out for untampered water bottles.

If you see that the security ring on the water bottle has been broken, return immediately. Some restaurants or roadside booths will re-use bottles and fill them with unfiltered water. Be cautious with the fizzy lemon drink that’s a popular alternative to pop, as well. Ask the waiter to open the bottle in front of you.

The Takeaway

India didn’t leave my consciousness right away – I had a nasty virus or parasite or magical fat burner for a week after returning to Europe – and it still hasn’t, a month after we returned to Spain and drinkable water. My body heaved a sigh of relief as soon as we’d been bumped to business class for our long haul flight, as if I didn’t have to have my senses sharpened and my head on straight all the time (I missed you, beer).

My boss was right when she said that India has all of the beauty in the world, but it is full of shadows. We were scammed and once put in a potentially dangerous situation. Women offered us their babies at corners. Heat, anxiety and lack of vegetables left us weak and then made us both quite sick. 

But I think that India is the sort of place that you have to plunge into, headfirst.

I sometimes envied the travelers who were seeing India on circuit trips between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. They didn’t deal with train delays or scams, but then again, they didn’t have any sense of adventure when it came to figuring things out on their own and recovering from mistakes. Hayley and I discovered more than we had imagined during out eight days in India, evident with her quick stride as she crossed busy avenues and pressing our hands together in the Namasté greeting.

India did as good a job embedded itself into my heart and my head as the parasite did in my rock-hard immune system. I just hope the memories of one last longer than the other!

Have you ever felt like a fish out of water on your travels? Tell me about it!

Seville Snapshots: Costaleros Practicing for Holy Week

The capataz knocks once. As if mechanically, the 40-off men beneath the wooden structure heave together, resting on their heels, hands gripping the wooden beams above their heads.

A second knock, and they launch into the air together.

On the third, the simulation float has rested on their shoulders, and they begin a coordinated dance down the street, walking in sync as they practice for their glorious penitence – Holy Week.

You all know that I paso de pasos (and the crowds, and the brass bands and even the torrijas), but the grueling pilgrimage from one’s church to the Cathedral and back fascinates me. No one bears the brunt more than the costaleros, who must pay for this prestigious position within their brotherhoods and seek penitence through their labor, carrying over 100 pounds for an average of eight hours.

In the weeks leading up to Viernes de Dolores, no less than 60 brotherhoods will crisscross the city to practice, placing cinderblocks on top of the metal float to simulate the large statue, each depicting the final moments of Jesus Christ’s life or of the weeping Virgin Mary. For ten days, Seville is full of religious fervor as the ornate pasos descend on the city center.

For an official route plan with approximate times, check here. You can use this to either catch the processions, or totally avoid them!

What are your Holy Week plans? Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Seville?

On Nostalgia and Expat Life

It always creeps up on me – whether it’s seeing the plastic grocery bags and hearing the clinking of bottles from within on Thursday night as I ride home from the academy, or passing the trendy bars from which people overflow, gintoncitos in hand, onto the sidewalk in El Arenal.

Sigh. Nostalgia always gets to me.

My life as an expat and guiri in Spain has seen its up and its downs. For several years, Spain was a momentary pause between college and real life, a hiccup of time to travel, learn Spanish and enjoy my early 20s.

Then Spain became my long-term plan, and things changed.

Just last week, the Novio and I were talking about looking for a house to eventually start a family. In talking numbers, mortgages and neighborhoods, I had to tell my head to stop spinning. What happened to renting and dealing with ugly, heavy furniture and noisy roommates and hustling to pay the Internet bill?

Did I grow up that fast? Surely I didn’t do it overnight, but when did I start to feel so….adult?

Danny and Javi visited at the end of February, and Javi caught me off guard when he asked, “Do you miss your life as an auxiliar de conversación?” over a plate of croquetas. Without even thinking about it, I said no. Turns out, Danny does.

I got to thinking about it while they had a siesta later that afternoon. Did I miss working 12 hours a week as a job where I didn’t do much but speak in English to a bunch of teens and take advantage of a few free coffees a week?

Well, yes and no. 

Did I miss having a job that was fun and carried little responsibility?

Yes and no.

Did I miss having my afternoons free for siestas, flamenco class and coffee with the Novio? Hell yes.

Did I miss fretting over whether or not my private classes would cancel on me and leave me without money enough for groceries and bus rides? Hell no.

The first three years in Seville were some of my best. I made friends from around the world, spent my many long weekends lugging a backpack on overnight bus rides and budget flights, stayed out until the sun came up or my feet couldn’t take it anymore. It was my second shot at studying abroad and at squeezing another year out of “learning” as if Spain were my super senior year.

Dios, was it fun. I remember so fondly those afternoon beers that turned into breakfast the next morning, the nights in with giggles, the Guiri Whoa moments. And the hard, hard goodbyes.

But the first three years in Seville were also marred with problems and annoyances: I had to live with roommates, learn to light a bombona, factor shoes into my budget and live off of dry pasta and tomate frito. The Novio and I broke up. I struggled with knowing if Spain was a good idea or a waste of my time. I was doing a job that was easy, yes, but not as fulfilling as I had hoped. 

All of those soaring highs were met with desolate lows. I had to decide to love it or leave it.

Making the decision to spend the rest of my life in Spain meant my days went from siesta and fiesta to frantically looking for a job and spending wisely. Then came nóminas, afiliación a la seguridad social, pareja de hecho, car insurance, sick pay and all of those other “adult” words.

I was living my dream of becoming fluent in foreign bureaucrazy and those of becoming a champion siesta taker seemed to fade away. I had made the transition from language assistant to a full-fledged member of the work force practically unscathed (but very, very poor).

As I adjusted to a full-time schedule and work commitments, I began to miss the old me, the girl who never turned down plans for fear of missing out, who would leave on the next bus out-of-town on a whim. Friday night became catch-up-on-sleep night, and Sundays were devoted to lesson planning. I began to lose sight of the things that were important to me and took out my angst on everyone from my students to my suegra.

Something wasn’t right, and I needed to make a change.

I found myself longing for the Spanish life I had before the private school, even with the stress over money and friends and language and life direction. I wanted to enjoy going out and enjoying Seville without just going through the motions.

So I chose. I chose a pay cut and an arguably less prestigious job and the uncertainty of the job market in the throes of a financial crisis. I chose to be happy and to open myself up to other opportunities, lest it be too late. Even with a master’s and a job and a blog and a boyfriend, I managed to regain a sense of myself and purpose. I realized that I end up setting my own limits for work, relationships and happiness.

Life continues as normal for me, six years after moving to Seville. When I pine to not be tired at midnight and to live close to the action of the city center, I remember everything that came along with it: language frustrations, scrounging for money, sharing a flat, drinking cheap and terrible liquor and eating cheap and terrible food.

I finally have a work-life balance that I craved during the first five years I lived here. Like Goldilocks, it seems I finally have found what is just right.

 

I may miss the carefree days where I could siesta for three hours and never have to worry about what to do on the weekends but how to fit it all in and under budget, I freaking miss my friends.

but at 28, it’s not me anymore.Whenever the pangs of nostalgia hit, they’re quickly quelled when I reflect back on how much I’ve accomplished, how much of the world I’ve seen for choosing plane tickets over drink tickets, and remember that I’m where I intended to end up.

Do you get nostalgic for your study abroad days or college days? How do you cope?

My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

The Guiri Complex (Or, Why I Can’t Have It All)

The other day, Seville was held hostage by light rain. I did a bit of puddle jumping, nearly taking out morning shoppers and walkers with my umbrella as I ran to catch the bus. The bus, in its normal fashion, stopped down the street and stayed there for five months.

As I tried to catch my breath, a man in his 70s covered me from the light sprinkle. He reeked of cigarettes and anise, just the way I like my Spanish abuelos. “Ofu, what a day,” he hacked, a small chuckle caught in his throat. We smiled at each other for a few moments before he offered a bit more, “Look at that bus, getting caught in traffic. People here don’t know what to do in the rain.”

It was my turn to chuckle. Being from Chicago, we’re used to two seasons in the year (winter and construction on the Dan Ryan) and four in one day. I can withstand heat and bitter cold, have survived three tornadoes and even learned to drive in the snow when I first got my driver’s permit. Upon mentioning this, the old man’s eyes lit up. “But your Spanish is impeccable! You may, in fact, be more sevillano than me!”

Aha, there it is. Whenever I seem to be out doing my normal guiri thing (in this case, picking up some forms for the academy), people stop to talk to me. Most are keen on touting my Spanish or are shocked that I moved away from home so young. Y tus padres? They ask, unable to fathom how a child would leave the comfort of their parents’ home, where laundry is done for them and tupperwares full of food dished out.

When my parents were visiting last year, my habits puzzled them. How could I be hungry at 3pm? What do you mean stores aren’t open on Sundays? You really do take a siesta? I didn’t come to Spain to simply hang out and learn some Spanish. I never set out to be Spanish or change my habits, either. What’s funny is that, the longer I live in Spain, the more American I seem to feel.

Just recently, an American food store opened up right in the center (and, ironically, in the same locale where I bought my flamenco dress). The chatter amongst my guiri friends was electric, with everyone sharing pictures of their goodies from the cell phones. When I announced, “I’m kind of against the store,” I got puzzled and even annoyed responses. How could I not love paying 2,50€ for two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (I kid, and I almost did, except for that I already had some at home!).

Here’s the thing: the trips the Novio takes to the US always bring American gifts and the special treats my friends bring me on their visits are treated like contraband. I’ve left an entire box of Do-si-do Girl Scout cookies nearly untouched – I love opening my cupboard for some sugar to see them there. The Novio dutifully recites back what he needs to bring for Thanksgiving on his upcoming trip (and, bless his heart, he bought me new skivvies this summer at VS – it must be love), and my mother knows intuitively that I will always need greeting cards when she sends me a package. Just like in the Hunger Games, American Parcel Day means I won’t go empty-stomached.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, vanilla extract, economy-sixed boxes of Cheeze-its. The Novio would take me, wide-eyed and fistful of dollar bills, to the American part of his base for the contraband, usually in the form of cans of Dr. Pepper and ranch dressing. The anticipation of these trips would build and build until I’d consume the overly sweet soda, usually after hitting the gym (I don’t feel guilty, in case you were just wondering).

What’s more, I’ve finally gotten cooking and baking with limited resources more or less figured out, and having all of those things so readily available would take the fun out of it.

Another case in point: When I visited my cousin for Oktoberfest, I nearly had a heart attack when we went into the grocery store on her Army base. For the first time in a year, I was technically on American soil, but my carry-on restrictions meant I had to pick and choose the most important goodies. Reese’s, Funfetti cake mix and cranberry sauce made the cut, and I almost sighed from relief that I didn’t have much room between Camarón and the dirndl. When I enquired about German beer, Christyn said it was only sold in the nearby gas station. Apparently Bud Light > Paulaner (wtf).

I think there’s a big difference between me and them: They came for work and because the Army required time abroad at one of the overseas bases. I came because moving to Spain sounded like a fun way to skip out of America for a year. I didn’t come for anyone but myself; I came for the adventure and the chance to learn Spanish, and I stayed for the culture, the challenge and the Novio (duh, and the food).

Perhaps it’s the fact that Seville continues to modernize, taking with it some of the old world charm that had me so smitten in the first place. As my friend Mickey pointed out, there were no Starbucks when she came to Seville eight years ago, and now there are three on the same stretch of street (and this was once my homesickness remedy). Souvenir stores have elbowed out century-old hardware stores in the Santa Cruz neighborhood, and there’s English everywhere I turn. My ciudad de alma is starting to seem a lot like any mid-sized American city, and it’s stinging a little bit.

But don’t get me wrong: I relish in the fact that the TDT finally works and I can watch TV in English. Hamburgers, guacamole and roast chicken get made just as often in our home as fabada and tortilla francesa do. I speak just as much English each day as I do Spanish. America is where I lived the first 22 years of my life, and I consider it my home.

There’s much more to it than looking the part with my freckles, blue eyes and reddish hair against the dark Andalusian beauties. The first time the Novio saw me in a flamenco dress, his eyes lit up a bit, and then he just laughed at a beef-loving American stuffed into a traje de gitana. Try as I might, I look the part and even act it. Nevermind that I am a card-carrying resident of the EU, that I belong to a country club and that my partner serves in the Spanish military. I still believe that arriving on time is late, that one can only stay up so long on weeknights (even when she works at 3pm) and that the 4th of July is the best damn date on the calendar because, let’s face it, I love hot dogs and fireworks more than jamón and bullfights.

The Guiri Complex is just that: the inability to really feel like both of your feet are in the same place. My heritage and my native tongue make me a hot commodity in Spain, meaning I’ll always have a means to stay here and work. I’m the lovable friend who makes language blunders and bakes brownies for birthdays, the affable guiri, or foreigner,  in the group.

My friends back home think that living in Spain must be romantic and full of sunshine and trips. It is and it isn’t. If I lived in America, I’d be working, paying bills and contemplating what to make for dinner. I do that in Spain, too. The currency I use for the ingredients for that dinner are bought in euros and sometimes have funny names, but it’s really no different. In fact, I’m often jealous that my friends are all so close to one another, can be at one another’s weddings and make a salary that allows them some luxuries.

I sometimes feel like I live in a strange cross between everything I knew as a kid and the excitement of experiencing a new culture and language from the ground. I still cling to my American traditions and comfort food, but have adopted new holidays and a more adventurous palate. I’m constantly torn between two places where it feels like my heart belongs: Seville and Chicago.

Do you experience the guiri complex? Are your feet in just one bucket, or in both? And how do you cope?

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