Bikinis, Broken Bottles and Barcelona?
My first trip abroad, I was 19 years old and decided to travel to a foreign country, all by myself. I had worked and saved, and nothing was going to stop me! I bussed tables all summer long that year at a beach bar, also got a job as a hostess and had the best tan of my life! I applied for my passport, sold my car and bought a round-trip ticket! “Where do I want to go?”, I asked myself. “Somewhere safe” My inner voice answered. “England? Maybe?” but by doing my research, London was way out of my budget and too much like America. I wanted to see somewhere different! So, I got out a map, closed my eyes and just pointed. My finger landed in the water between Spain and Portugal. “I guess I will just have to go to explore both!”
All of a sudden, I found myself flying for the first time, in an actual airplane! I was so ecstatic! 19 years old, oh, and six+ months pregnant with my son! 30,000 feet up and about to tour Barcelona, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal, alone and all that was with me was a carryon beach bag full of colorful bikinis and tanning lotions!
When I landed in Spain, I got to know myself really fast and unexpectedly. I got to see this real raw big girl show up out of nowhere. It was a rough start to the trip for me because not only was I 19, pregnant, and had no ‘real world’ experience with other cultures, nor did I speak Spanish or Portuguese but also because the airport in Madrid would not let me board my connection to Barcelona when I landed. It was my first lesson on how other countries apparently have different customs and laws, and in Spain, when you are that far along in your pregnancy, they don’t let you get on an airplane to go anywhere! So, there I was, stuck. 4000 Miles away from America, from anyone I knew and only swimsuits and tanning lotion in tow. I have family in Northern Italy, but no way to get a hold of them and we’ve never met. I didn’t have a cell phone back then and I had no idea what to do. I was in a strange land, surrounded by strange people who spoke a strange language. And wow, was I in for a big surprise! I got to learn the lesson of what it’s like to be confronted with an issue in a foreign country, how difficult it was for me to communicate with the Spaniards who spoke very little broken English, and I learned I did not have the same rights or entitlement as I had (or thought I had) in America. These people did not care about my tantrums, my tears, and my pleadings. All they cared about was the safety of my unborn child and enforcing their rules and regulations. No. Flights. I learned that the only help I was going to get was through our American Embassy because that was one of the only words I could decipher from the man behind the counter. How do I get a hold of them? Google didn’t exist back then? So, I walked around aimlessly and sat down next to a row of pay phones, and then I heard it, the sound bottles breaking. I leaned up against the wall so hard out of emotional exhaustion and fear, that my tanning lotion bottles clattered together against the cinderblock wall and broke, leaking all over everything in my backpack. I cried even harder in that moment. I just wanted to go home!
As the tears slowed, I saw attached to the payphone next to me was a dingy old phone book. “This has to be a sign!” I told myself, but everything was in Spanish. I flipped though all 800 pages, so frustrated, so alone and frightened. I threw the book down and it landed with the back cover ad staring me in the face through all my tears. On the back of the book was a phone number next to the word American. I called the number collect and it connected me to an operator who was able to connect me to the American Embassy in Madrid. And, they spoke English! I was so relieved and excited again! My tears of frustration turned to tears of relief instantly. The longest 3 hours of my life in Madrid’s Airport finally sped up and I explained my situation to the nice lady on the other end of the line, and the American Embassy contacted my OB/GYN (in the middle of the night stateside, I might add) to have my doctor give his written permission for me to be able to board another flight to get to my original Barcelona destination. This was great news! But to have it faxed over to the US Embassy in Madrid was not going to be a fast process. I ended up not ever making it to Barcelona, learning what a hostel was. Learning the difference between what a regular hostile was and what a party hostel was by mistake, and how to navigate trains by just getting on one that pulled up in front of me going the direction I needed to go and just seeing where I ended up because I couldn’t stay at the airport while all this paperwork needed to be sorted out. The nice lady on the phone said it could take up to 72 hours for a turn around on it, and to get to a hostel and stay put. Plus, I needed to find the American Embassy anyway because that was where I had to go to get the required forms to fly again. I learned so much about myself that day. It’s such a thrill to travel solo, all it’s ups and downs. I learned what I take for granted and what I’m thankful for when I have it. I also smelled like coconut tanning lotions for days. It is still my favorite scent!
It takes pure guts and courage to travel alone!
I ended up having no choice but to spend a few days in Madrid and made the best of this unexpected detour. I had glass shards in all my bikinis even after finding a laundry mat and washing everything, but oh well, I did it! I was now Miss International! Miss Worldly! A little off course, but I did it! I enjoyed seeing the beautiful colors and the old buildings with all the history absorbed into their ancient walls. The art displayed so openly everywhere for passerby’s to enjoy. The street performers working hard to entertain the crowds. The gypsies selling trinkets on the corners and the smells that radiated from that amazing city will forever be remembered and cherished in my heart. Accomplishing this trip on my own at such a young age, and as a girl from what most would refer to “from the other side of the tracks” was a huge moment in my life. I realized no matter where I came from, I could have anything I wanted! I just had to take the risk and go for it!
I explored all I could of Madrid before the Embassy called the hostel I was staying at for 1700.00 Peseta ($10.00 USD) a night and said all necessary documents were ready for me to pick up so I could resume my travels. I booked my flight straight from Madrid into Lisbon, Portugal. When I boarded, the crew members all came by my row with pillows and blankets and tucked me in my seat. They even put a pillow in-between the seatbelt and my tummy to cushion my unborn child in case of any turbulence or emergencies. It was amazing to learn back then, how much we as humans can communicate and articulate to one another solely through body language.
When I arrived in Lisbon, I indulged in the best seafood I have ever had to this day. I bought a couple dresses, ridded my wardrobe of the remaining glass shards and I had my very first, scariest and fastest taxi ride of my life down the most narrow of streets, but I survived! I saw my first castle and king in a golden horse carriage pass by me, life happening in front of my eyes just like it was done hundreds of years ago and I even went to see a bullfight, unknowingly! I was just following the crowd of people into a beautiful old coliseum. I had no idea what I was standing in line to buy a ticket for at that time. They actually kill the bull during those events. I was in shock and once again found myself in tears. I only stayed 20 minutes in that arena and from there on out, I have been a vegetarian and I never ate meat again!
Spain will forever hold a special place in my heart. That is where I first found my passion for travel and a unexpected love for bikinis!