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!

Call me racist

I can’t help it. I love it when they’re light in colour. Call them fair or anything you want, but I can unabashedly say that I prefer that over their darker, brownish counterparts.

And before you take up arms to write me down in the comments section, let me clarify. I’m talking about the water.

There’s just something about a blue-green ocean that calls out to me. Like Moana. Especially if there’s the vivid green of a grass or a set of trees to contradict the blues of the sky and the water. 

I mean who can deny the attraction to this:

Or this:

Or for that matter, this. The island in the middle just makes it all the more moving. 

Naturally, I’ve been sitting here for god-knows how long while the sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, leaving me alone with the incessant waves for company. But I’m alright. I find that time moves a little more invisibly when you’re near the shore. It feels like time rides the waves. Initially, you’re aware of each wave that lashes at the rocks near the shore. But then, over time, one wave seamlessly merges into the next one, giving enough space for time to pass away, hidden from your consciousness. Of course, it could also be that you’re simply lost in the way the green water slowly and steadily turns blue, the transition stretching all the way to the distant horizon. 

That I love it would be an understatement. I’ve come to accept wholly that I’m a water bum. Funnily, it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realised my penchant for water. Yet, I find it hard to answer the ‘beach versus mountain terrain’ question. Why do they have to be mutually exclusive? Give me a mountain beside a sea, and I’d gladly spend my days staring out at nothing. 

Note, how I’m avoiding phrases like ‘forever’ or ‘spend my whole life there’. That’s a conscious choice. For what I love, I love it and live it today. Only today. But I can’t say if it’s what I want forever. The weight of a lifetime is not something I can carry. Nor do I want to. 

Time couldn’t even last long enough for the beach and the island to be together. They had to be separated, each craving for the other… Waiting for the day when the ocean will devour the last few rocks in the island and the beach, for them to be lost in eternity—but together, at last. 

But enough musings for this poor bench. The earth’s gravity is calling out to the liquid building within me! 😛 

P. S. Location is San Sebastian, Spain

Bonus pictures:

Why love feels bittersweet 

The human body feels. It’s because of the tiny blue-green nerves that connect every single cell in the body. These nerves pass on ‘feel’ messages to the brain. A head ache, for instance, is one or many of the nerves telling the brain of some pressure. The brain, then, interprets this as pain. The same goes for smell, touch, sight, taste and sound. 
And then there’s the feeling inside your gut. Where you feel sorrow, happiness, nostalgia, anger, jealousy, fear, and yes, love. 
Love is that potent feeling that makes all your nerve endings exposed to the elements. Imagine every single nerve in your body screaming to your brain. It can be overwhelming. The feeling–the pain from the sheer excess–is at once both internal and external. 
And only the person you feel the love for can be the thin layer of balm to sooth the frayed nerve endings. 
Yet, this layer is thin, almost to the point of being a transparent layer. You want to wear your lover like skin. Very few lucky people actually do. 
But even then, the thinness of the layer reminds you of the danger lurking around. One tiny tear, one loss of layer, and your very soul can be in a world of pain. Your life can turn upside down. 
And you know there’s no medicine, no cure. Only the passage of time can dull your tired nerve endings. Only dull it, mind you. It never really goes away completely. Unless, you learn to wear a thick layer of defense that no one can smash through. 
But what suffocated survival can it be? 
Oh, what painful life loving would be? 

Loneliness lies between your fingers

The loneliness lies in the invisible nooks and crevices of your life. An inevitable stamp that coats every fibre of your being, separating you from the world.

Loneliness lies in the crevices between your fingers that were once filled. It’s like the skin there is marked with the knowledge and remembrance. And it now calls to relive the experience of another skin. Of your friend, your child or your parent. Or maybe even the distant lover who refuses to leave that deep set corner of your mind.

Loneliness, it sometimes is in the invisible outline of a hand at the small of your back. It’s in the memory of a time in another lifetime of being held and maybe even loved. And sometimes, it’s in the caresses showered on your body, when your thighs rested against his. When your chest lined her back as support. Or in the nape where their shoulder met their neck, the place where your cheeks and nose rested in love. And in the laugh-lined crinkle of your eyes that were once alive with joy. Or in the fullness of your lips that their tongue once explored.

Loneliness lies in the warmth that once coated your body, and has now seeped into your soul. A warmth that oddly now leaves you cold and shivering on a balmy night.

And sometimes, loneliness stares back at you from the dark ceiling of your room, on a starry sleepless night. And if you decide to go for a stroll, it reflects in the night’s moon and the stars, which once held all the hopes and dreams of a happy future, but now seem distant and lifeless. And when the day’s tiredness slowly pulls your lids shut, the loneliness falls from the ceiling to softly drape over you and the empty space next to you. It’s the thick warm quilt you snuggle under.

Loneliness, my friend, is not in the solitude. It’s in the company, or lack thereof. It’s in the outside world. And in the memories that line the inside of your mind, like a million movies playing continuously non-stop. Or in the gaps and spaces in your heart.

Loneliness lies in the very nerve endings of your skin, that’s now exposed to their absence, perhaps for ever.

The Walking Irony

Images with a quote are all the rage these days. Every single person active on social media (guilty as charged) has liked, posted or shared at least one such image.

What started as a beautiful thing earlier, has now, according to me, gone out of control. As with everything else, a mass democratisation (as our media studies professor called it) brings down quality. In English, this means, when something becomes too popular; when you have to cater to the masses, the quality often drops.

Take this image quote for example:

shitty-quote

I call this the Walking Irony. Here’s why:

Let’s start with the meaning of the quote. The connotation is quite clearly negative. People are usually thankless and not sensitive about the effort someone puts in for them. It is only when that ‘help’ stops that people stand up and notice.

Agreed. So far, at least.

But the second connotation of this quote is that people ‘never’ notice; people ‘never’ notice. But that isn’t true, is it? Everyone, at some point in time or the other, has appreciated or noticed timely help and effort.

So, the quote essentially ignores all these times.

This means you can apply the rule of the quote to the quote itself. Hello, Irony!

What’s your Life word? 

It all started when I read a book review. Or rather, it reached a culmination. 

The review talked about this new book called ‘Grief is a Thing with Feathers’ by Max Porter. A description in it set off my musings. Or more specifically, a word did. 

Distill. 

I learnt this word in school in Science class. Distillation, the teacher and textbooks explained, was a process of letting water evaporate so that it leaves behind its impurities. Back then, the impurity in question was Salt. 

Funny how I did not know back then that it would become a dominating theme of my life. My life with Words. Yes, with the capital W. A proper noun. 

The review spoke about how the book “distilled a grieving family’s expression of loss”. Immediately, it painted a picture of a white bowl full of non-abstract grief (gaseous liquid. Something like JK Rowling’s Pensieve). Slowly over time, the bowl gets distilled to leave behind a few words in the bowl (think cereal or Kelloggs). 

It sounds stupid when you describe the imagination, but I realized this: Quite well, the brain does this every waking moment of the day. Of course, it does this in reverse order. The brain takes words, actions and other stimuli, and distills the meaning to leave behind feelings and emotions. 

Think about your favorite song or book or movie—it must evoke some feeling in you, touch some raw nerve. So much that the first thing your brain recollects is the emotion being evoked. Then and only then does the brain put together other information—like a Lego tower slowly being built with detail pieces. 

This also sounds similar to that Masterchef episode I watched a long time back. The three four contestants had to create this intricate dish (as always!), the centrepiece of which was a clear broth. 

It fascinated me to no end. The ability to take in all the flavors of the ingredients and distill it into water, whose quantity was probably just 10% of the quantity of all the raw ingredients put together. Like this:

I find this incredible! 

This reminds me of the part in Eat. Pray. Love. Julia Roberts’ character (I watched  the movie, didn’t read the book) came across this concept in Italy about ‘A Single Word or Phrase’ that describes the person’s life. It essentially ‘distills’ the whole life story. 

As a writer, especially one taught to appreciate and follow Brevity, this caught my attention. Immediately, I started thinking: what would my Word be? 

Many fiction stories too deal with this concept. They call it the ‘True Name’, which can give a person power over that individual. It sounds different, and yet (to me) quite similar too. 

Anyway, I wrecked my mind. I thought and thought and thought. What would my Word or Phrase be? 

The saga continued until two conversations with my colleagues. (Side note : these are people I look up to, who I’ve identified as teachers and mentors). 

The conversations were about Ambition. My whole life, I’ve been conscious about ‘not getting stagnant’. (Not always consciously, though). So it scared me when I was faced with the possibility that between ‘ambition’ and ‘comfortable work-life balance’, I’d choose the latter. The implication was that I wouldn’t grow; that I’d become stagnant. 

Long story short, my colleague made me realise that ambition can be many things. It’s not one-dimensional about being the first in your career or field of work. 

The more interesting part about this conversation, my key takeaway from it was this: I love dance. I love studying. I love food. I love traveling. I love math and science. But the one thing that trumps it all—the live wire of my existence—is writing. It’s Words.  

That moment, I realized, if my perspective were to be reconstructed on a Matrix screen, everything would be built by words. The foundation of the entire world in my head is a combination of Words. 

That was just the first step of my self-realisation. The last leg of the journey happened yesterday. 

I was retelling my travel experience in Turkey. At the end, moved by my description, my colleague commented: “What are you doing with your life?! You should be in Travel. You should be a Travel writer. You have a way of painting pictures with your words.”

Initially, I felt flattered and genuinely considered the possibility. 

Later, though, I realized that I can do the same, that I light up and become animated about other subjects too. Things that I love or that which fascinate me. 
No, the thing drawing the connections is different. 

That’s when my brain finally connected the dots. 

If I had to distill myself, ‘Words’ would be my choice of description. 

Yep. I search for Words everywhere. I breathe Words. I write and speak Words. More importantly, I attach Words to abstract things in life. Body language, experiences, meaning, emotions—anything and everything. 

My favorite pass-time is to take synonyms; play and feel the texture of the Words; dissect them, and find the difference between the Words. 

Words even leave a taste and feel in my mouth, as if they are a morsel of food I’m tasting. They’re that real for me. 

I’m pretty sure that when I die,  you’d see invisible words evaporating from my body and soul. Much like the Kingfisher bird in the movie, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. 

What about you?