No gain without pain

Spain is my first solo travel. Until now, I’ve only traveled in groups, barring a few day-trips when I studied in the UK. It reached a point where I realized I am not too happy in a group. Such trips have always left me wanting a little more. I still had an unidentified craving left, even after spending two-three weeks on vacation.

I figured, maybe… Just maybe, I’m meant for solo travel instead. So, I jumped onto the idea of traveling in Spain without a second thought the moment opportunity arose. And more importantly, spent no moment waiting (or asking) for company. I wanted to do it alone. (Sorry, friends and family!)

Before the trip, I was both excited and nervous. Most people asked me to be cautious. Even my own sister who’s back-packed across Europe asked why I’m traveling alone. But I had decided, and there was no going back. I packed the nerves along with the rest of my belongings. It didn’t help that my trip started on a not-so-great note. My flight was terribly delayed and I missed my connecting flight.

It’s been eight days in the country so far, and I already feel like I’ve grown heaps. This place has given me so many beautiful experiences. Solo traveling has been everything I dreamt so far.

But here’s the thing. It’s not always sunny. There will be moments when you’re down.

Like this:

Or this:

Or getting scalded by a hot pane during lunch.

The first is called the Hiker’s Knee. It’s not serious, thankfully. But it does mean you stay in bed for a day or so with R. I. C. E. — rest, ice, compression and elevation. And maybe some Ibuprofen or Combiflam. And so, despite the knee issue, this happened:

The second is a weird bruise on my thigh that’s been travelling with me since the start (maybe?). I have absolutely no idea what I bumped into, where or when. But it’s there, a colourful company. Thankfully, it doesn’t hurt.

But this isn’t surprising. You always have to pay up to get something in life. There are no free lunches.

So far, I’ve paid with things like rings and coats on ever single trip of mine. This time, since life is offering more, it’s asking for more sacrifices in return too.

That said, why it would take only one of my favourite pair of earrings, I don’t know. Heh.

Maybe there’s a special place where all these sacrifices and donations accumulate, a warehouse of sorts. Maybe this is where gifts from too! Who knows.

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When hungry, eat fear

Stop two and three of my solo sojourn in Spain have been in the Basque country and the Asturias. And it’s everything that San Sebastian was not.
You see, San Sebastian is a beautiful European city that’s full of arts, history and culture. It’s very friendly, open and relaxing. You walk by yourself all you want. Sit wherever you want. Eat in any place you favour. For a city dweller, living here comes easily.

But the moment you step out of the city, you’re all alone with nature. The Basque country is dotted with charming little towns along the coast. But a hidden treasure is Zumaia and its Flysch. And I’m proud to have found it in my research. The Geoparkea, which runs tours in the area, had a 3-hour hiking and boat tour at 10.30 in the morning. Now the only problem was, the tour was only available for the 26th, which ate into a day in the Picos de Europa–another little gem, this time, a suggestion of a friend.

Had sanity prevailed, I would have given up Zumaia and headed straight to the Picos, which in itself wasn’t a straightforward route. I had to change buses and then catch a cab to cover the remaining 30-40 minutes of the journey.

But, the very fact that I’m writing this should indicate that sanity did not prevail. 

Headstrong I was. My heart was set on the Flysch. And on I went, deciding to reach the Picos late in the night. Fear point 1. Or so I thought.

That morning, I woke a little early by vacation standards—at 8. Quickly packed and left by 9. The train station was only 5-10 minutes away. So I thought, hey, I have enough time to reach by 10.30. It was just about 35 minutes away, after all.

What I didn’t check was the train schedule. I missed the train at 8.50. Instead, I had to catch the one at 9.45! I prayed hard that I don’t miss the tour. Even practically scrambled from the train station through the circular and confusing streets. Gmaps, wrong as often is, suggested taking the highway! But, as you can expect, I ended up missing the tour.

Of course, when you travel, missed connections are often good. Turns out, it was a Spanish tour and my payment did not go through. Plus, the lady at the tourist centre was kind enough to explain the whole tour, and enabled me with three-four maps so I could do the whole thing myself. I explained about my tight schedule and she even helped work a way around it. Yay! Happily, I set off.

First, I armed myself with knowledge at the museum so I don’t look dumb at the actual site. Then I set off to the Flysch. 

Now, this post is not about the Flysch and its geological phenomenon. But here’s a quick look at the site. 

The real story begins on the top of these hills near the small church. Here:

See the ridge that extends towards the ocean? Now, that’s a small hike. It’s fairly flat and easy. 

But, here’s the thing. I realised I am a little bit prone to Vertigo, especially considering how I have two left feet while walking. Plus, it was a narrow ridge, which frankly, made me rethink if I should go. Also, it didn’t help that I wasn’t dressed correctly, and was alone and physically unfit for any hiking excursions. Fear point 2. (Or 1, if you want to follow the correct chronology)

But, as it turns out, this was just a trailer. And the trailer ended here:

This was the easy part.

Again, I realised I overshot my time. Ran back some how to the train station to miss my express bus by 2 minutes. This meant, I would reach just 15 minutes before my first bus to the Picos. Oh boy! Never before have I tried to run so fast carrying my large, heavy haversack! Unfortunately, even though I reached on time, I had to wait in a long queue to book my tickets. Aaannnnnd the bus left. Fear point 2!

Then, I did a little bit of research (yay, internet!) and found that my second bus from Bilbao originated in San Sebastian! And that was about an hour or so later. So quickly, I booked a ticket, got the same seats and lo behold, was on my way there.

Now wasn’t that seamless! 

The tricky part came at the end of that long bus ride, that ended at 21.30—there were no taxis! How do I go from Llanes to the mountain town of Arenas de Cabrales, I wondered. I knew there weren’t any buses too. Fear point 3!

Thankfully, there was a sweet boy at the station who was originally from Mexico. He asked the locals for taxi stands and offered to walk me there. Boy, am I glad to have accepted his offer as the taxi operator was shut. We moved around a bit, asked a few more locals, until finally a lady offered to call a cabbie friend who happened to be going in the same direction. Muchas gracias, senorita!

Finally, at 10.30 in the night, I reached my hotel, tired but very much entertained by Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba music on the way.

The next day, I got ready for the mountains after lazying in the cold bed, warm bathtub, and over a hot coffee. The sweet lady at the hotel helped me narrow my list of hikes/trails that suited my time limits and fitness levels; booked me a taxi to reach the starting point, and bid me Buenos dias. I conveniently chose one that wasn’t too long or too hard. 

Or so I thought. 

The kind cab driver (whom I shall meet again, btw) explained that there’s a view point separate from the trail. And it’s ‘just’ about 1 kilometer. So I decided to start there. 

It seemed easy. It was not. Turns out, I can walk 23,000 steps seamlessly. But I can’t walk even one kilometer if it involved fighting gravity! 

It was beautiful, though. And after yesterday’s scares and consequent victory, I pushed myself to slowly climb the six zig-zag curves. One break at a time. One curve at a time. 

I think I managed about four U-bends before my mind started playing games. “What if you go back? Can you really make it? Your lungs are killing you. Please give up,” it kept whispering to me. 

And then entered my biker knight. He saw me slowly walking on and stopped to offer a lift. I look at his Ducati and my heart soared! How perfect. I really missed biking along mountain slopes and so I gladly hoped on. Within 5 minutes, we reached. 

To be honest, though, it was a little bit of a bummer. There wasn’t much of a view that I didn’t get already. So, we went back. I asked him if I could tag along with him, my heart greedy for more motorcycle ride, and less walking. He was happy with how good a pillion I was (puhlease! I am experienced enough. Pffff) and agreed. 
After a certain point, we reached the start of the trail. 

Let’s now introduce fear point 4!

Let me tell you something. I have never gone trekking. Nor did I think I’m fit enough to go on one. Especially after the climb earlier. I huff and puff even on one flight of stairs. Forget about what looked like a steep hike. It was nowhere close to the easy walk I expected!

Thankfully, J, my biker saviour, decided to go on the same route. I swallowed my fear and told myself, “you can do this!” It helped that he expected more flatter surfaces further ahead.

And finally we set on, with lovely camaraderie and intelligent conversation. What followed is history. I’ll let the pictures tell you the rest of the story. 

And here’s the Ducati I climbed on as well as it’s rider. 

(BTW, can you find the goat in the background? It may not be easy!)  

———– x ———–

When I started writing this piece, I had finished the trail and was grabbing a break at a nearby hotel. I needed sustenance before I began my return journey, safe in the knowledge that I’ll get a cab back home. Guess what happened next? 

Nope, no taxis around! 

I waited for a bit. But there was barely a soul around. So I started walking back to my hotel—about 4-8kms away. 

To be honest, I was more scared of this than any of the previous experiences. Imagine waking on a highway-like road, alone, without a path to walk on! There were a few blind bends. And a car driving past may not have seen me in time to veer away. But I had no choice. 

So I walk on, initially trying to rewire my brain into thinking of it as an adventure. 

And then, I remembered the countless movies where bagpackers point their thumbs backwards, asking for a lift. Hitchhiking! 

Never done it before. Never needed to. Until I had to. 

Few cars went by. One car offered a finger. Two scooters said sorry. Then, one couple was kind enough to stop. It was barely a fifteen minute ride. And then, thankfully, I reached the hotel. Got a cab booked for the bus stop. And met my old cabbie again. This time, he was warmer and stopped at various places to let me click pictures. He also jabbered on a bit about fields and farming. Then, he realised I haven’t seen Llanes and it’s beautiful beach. So, he took me on a mini tour free of charge to the look around in Llanes.

Here’s my now-favourite taxi driver:

In all my life, I’ve seen my parents accept fear a handful of times. And even on those few occasions, I’ve seen them eat their fear, light a fire in their bellies, and move on. Come what may, they’ve not cowered. So all I did was tear a page from their book. 

I realised today, courage is not about a lack of fear. It’s about what you do with it that counts. 

And sometimes, I guess, it also includes asking for help and support. Anything but stop and pull back!

Sound of Love

There are two halves to the one whole of a plant’s growth. 

Similarly, there can be two parts of love.

Have you ever planted seeds or a sapling and see it grow? Initially, the roots form. They grow underground, unseen and silent. Bidding its time. And then, when the roots have gotten hold, the stems, leaves, fruits and flowers flourish. Slowly, steadily. Its loud, in your face and well, communicates to the whole world that ‘I am growing; I am flourishing’.
There are two halves to the one whole of a plant’s growth. 

Similarly, there can be two parts of love.

One is loud and deafening in its sound. It’s when you feel like your heart is expanding at a rapid pace, and will soon burst out of your body to envelope the whole world. It’s when you want to climb to the rooftop and shout to the whole world about the love you’re feeling. Your body, mind and soul screams and demands a witness to your Love. 

This is akin to the stems and branches of the trees that you are trying to reach the sky, continuously, constantly. The branches of your Love want to spread far and wide, taping into different fields and regions. And then the fiery flowers bloom to attract every eye that passes by. Like the Flame of the Forest, commonly known as Gulmohar in India or the Flame Tree. Scientists, in their usual grave tenor, call it the Royal Poinciana. Irrespective of what you call it, the vibrant vivid hues catch your attention and often take your breath away. Just like your intense feelings take your lovers breath away. The emotions move outward, from you to the world.

And then there’s the quiet love, silent and contemplative. Internal. Deep. It’s like the roots that spread wide and deep within. 

This is when you quietly stand on the sidelines of your lover’s story, witness to their beauty and well, life. When you let them be the hero of their story, beaming and happy. It’s when you bask in vibrant rays of their joys and happiness, all the while glowing in joy yourself. It’s when you find happiness and contentment in their peace. And nothing else really matters—not as much as your lover any way. This Love, like the roots, does not seek to shout or even intimate you of its presence. It just wishes to live, to be. And the flow of emotion? Well, it starts from you and flows deeper and deeper, slowly spreading through the veins and sinking further into your soul.

I hardly doubt that the two Loves exist separately. They’re part of the same whole. And the chances are, at different points in life, you’re likely to have felt both. 

When the sun stops shining

Can you imagine how tiring it is to shine constantly? To be the beacon of hope; the bringer of life.

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Can you imagine how tiring it is to be the sun? The world may fall asleep, then rise, go about their day’s work, and then sink into bed again. But the sun, no, it never sleeps. It never stops shining. At every given second, there’s one part of the world covered in its golden hues.

But can you imagine how tiring it is to shine constantly? To be the beacon of hope; the bringer of life.

And that’s probably why, sometimes, it dulls down. Otherwise, how could a few clouds manage to dim the great ball of fire; it’s magnificence unparalleled? Neither could a puny moon eclipse the solar god into dusk, right?

No, the sun sometimes gets tired of producing one yellow stream of thought after another; another golden ray that sets another life alight. And so, it lets the monsoon play for a while; or allow the dust winds to gear into action small tornadoes that make everything seem brown. Sometimes, the sun even drapes a shroud of cold, dull smog—a small win for the polluting mankind.

But only for a short time.

Because its very soul is fire; sheer flames with the potential to burn everything down in its path.

So, after a short break, the sun gets up like a dog or cat from its nap; shrugs the dust of comfort and compliance; yawns to shake away the misery of drudgery, and then, trots towards its feisty spirits that wait in patience, slowly gathering pace.

Sometimes, it’s assisted by cheery friends called seasons. They swoop by and supply the necessary dose of energy, bringing with them loud noises that shatters cars’ windowpanes. Other times, they materialise in silence and simply exist in tandem.

And then, just like the sun, your soul breaks from its dull reverie and shines like the fiery spirit it is.

Of Time, birthdays, and the lost ones

Also published on Thought Catalog:

Past. Present. Future.
Time.
Time changes things. Or rather, things — be it abstract or tangible — change with time.
One day ends to give way to another. And another.
The earth slowly rotates and revolves.
The clock’s hands never stop.
And with it, the wheels of change are set into motion. It creeps in slowly, inch by inch.
Every day is just another day. And yet, it is not.
To make some days stand out, we give them a meaning, a name, or a reason.
Even your birthday.
Yet, there are many who see no reason to celebrate the day they were born.
I do.
They say it is just another day, so why go the extra mile?
It is. Nonetheless, why should that stop us from celebrating the joy of life? Why should it stop us from taking a few minutes, hours or an entire day to take stock of your life, your people, and most importantly, count your blessings.
In a world where there are countless reasons to feel insipid, inconsequential and worthless, it is often tiny actions that matter; that make you who you are. These actions almost always win us our friends and loved ones. Yes, they may not stay forever. Yes, there are countless who get lost in the various chapters of the book called life simply because ‘life’ happened. Yes, it is not a very happy feeling to look back and remember those who were once special, but are no more an active part of your life. We are taught to hold those more dear who have been with us forever.
But, why should that stop you from being grateful to have those who do remain, or those who have entered your life anew? Because past experience suggests they may not be there tomorrow? Because nothing lasts forever?
If you ask me, it is precisely this reason why you should celebrate birthdays — yours and others, especially others — for if you did not take time out today to build memories, to feel grateful and feel special, you may have nothing to reminisce about tomorrow.
Today, you have these people. Tomorrow, you may not. But during the time when they are a part of your life, they are or have been important. Why not make them feel that today, irrespective of what happens tomorrow?
Idioms and phrases advise us to take advantage of ‘and make good use of every day; that every single day should be special — not just a few. But, we all know that’s not humanely realistic. We all have our off days, when things don’t work out, when we fight and are unhappy.
So, why let go of the few days that can be turned special, simply because we refuse to go along with convention that dictates the same?
This year, my friends planned a big surprise for me. I never saw it coming. I also received many gifts — even from people who had moved to a different city. It made me feel very special. These were the people whose lives I had touched at some point in life. And in doing so, they deeply touched mine.
However, there were also moments when I was painfully aware of those I had left behind on my journey forward. Their absence was felt. These were the people who once held a special place in my daily life. They had once celebrated the very same day with much aplomb.
However, life happened. It is sad, yes.
But today, I look back on those moments with happy nostalgia. I am thankful that at the excuse of my birthday, I expressed the importance of their presence in my life, and vice versa. I now know, at that moment in time, I had mattered to them. I also know that just because they aren’t here does not mean they have been erased forever.
Similarly, today, I’d rather feel grateful for having been loved and cherished, for being given the life I now lead, for the friends who are part of my life now and who went to such great lengths to make me feel special. I’d rather do that than give in to solemnity and nostalgia for the lost ones although they and the moments I’d shared with them were special too.
Today, I find reasons to celebrate the day, than pass it off as just another day.
On my birthday, I count my blessings for what I have today before I lose it, and what I had yesterday.
Today, I pay homage to the thing called Time.