Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Not-So-Glamorous-Side of Student Travel

The holidays are officially over and after spending some great time with my family back in the States, I'm ready to take on Seville for four more months. I'm not going to lie. It was much less exciting returning here than the first time. The city is no longer a secret. I'm already back in the routine of school. I know which winding, narrow back roads to take to get me where I'm going. I'm used to walking by the Guadalquivir river every day. I'm able to communicate in the language without awkward pauses and hand gestures. Seville is familiar. I crave the unfamiliar. But I have the feeling that there's a lot more to discover here. This semester is about finding it.

After the long flight from DFW and a few siestas, I left my apartment to meet the new students that are here for the second semester. As I was walking to meet them, I couldn't help but grin at my surroundings. There's something exciting in the air. Or maybe it's just the smell of the orange trees. I just have a good feeling about these next few months.

But in contrast, I think that sometimes people have the idea that everything in my world, in Spain, is perfect. And while I'm having an incredible time so far, I'll reflect on December's trip to Madrid to clear things up. Because I'm 18, independent, and making mistakes. 

Why take the high-speed train for 100 euros when you can take a six-and-a-half hour bus ride for 40 round trip? This the conclusion that my friends, Sophie and Faith, and I came up with when discussing how we would travel to Madrid, which is located in central Spain. Why pay more than 12 euros a night for a hostel? It seems that sometimes, in our quest to save money, we teenagers forget the little phrase, "you get what you pay for." 

And so we boarded the bus and arrived in Madrid pretty late at night. After a long ride on the Metro, we emerged into the glittering center of Madrid, which was still bustling with people. With instructions to look for our hostel between two shops, we found a sketchy door with graffiti plastered all over it. A closer inspection revealed a small sign with the name of our hostel, directing us to the third floor. We dragged our bags up the stairs and walked into the 1 star lobby filled with drinking, tattooed men and were promptly checked in by one of them, who seemed to care more about inviting us to the pub crawl than anything else. We were welcomed to our room that we would share with 8 other people, pointed to the bathroom that lay on the other side of the building, and allowed time to get to know our stained sheets. I'm not exactly sure when we realized that this was not the best idea, probably when the stench of the man's feet in the neighboring bed wafted near me. Call the Ritz. We're getting out of here. After a few calls to our parents for extra money and an extensive TripAdvisor search for a decent place to stay, we literally ran out of the place and into the overpriced comfort of a basic hotel room. I was just grateful for the lack of insects and a warm shower.

The next day we had to move hotels because ours was booked for the rest of the weekend, along with the rest of the hotels in all of Madrid. We chose to travel on a holiday weekend, which meant that we could find no place to stay! Finally, after sitting in the lobby for two hours, we found a decent hostel for a reasonable price. I'd say that we lucked out, because our choices were narrowed down to the street or the same hostel that we ran away from. FINALLY we were able to enjoy Madrid. 

The best part of our trip began and ended with the Imagine Dragons concert. At my graduation in May, they played one of their songs as we entered. Here I was in Europe a few months later, screaming with my fellow Spaniards as we danced to the very same song, feet away from the band. It was a strange feeling, like I was being reminded of everything I've accomplished since then. 

Everything quickly went downhill the rest of the weekend as the extreme crowds made it difficult to enjoy much of anything. Walking through the city center was a struggle because it was literally wall to wall people. We saw a few of the touristy sights, but mainly were just exhausted by the effort it took to get to them. Things really, really, really, went downhill on the last day as we were headed home. We had to take the Metro to the bus station and of course, had all of our luggage with us. I guess in the chaos of it all I wasn't paying enough attention to my surroundings. As we entered the train, I became separated from my friends. Seemingly by chance, but in reality it was all part of a scheme to steal my wallet. And steal my wallet they did. As the Metro began to move, I realized that I had nothing to hold on to to keep my balance. The woman standing next to me gestured at the rail in front of her. I unassumingly grabbed it, putting myself in an awkward, vulnerable position for her to have access to my purse. A few seconds later, I felt a tug on my purse. I looked down to find it out of my line of sight, covered by the jacket in the woman's hands. I quickly pulled it back and it was zipped. I opened it up to make sure that my wallet was still in there.... and it definitely was long gone. I knew the woman beside me had stolen it, so out of anger and adrenaline I yanked her jacket from her hands to look for my wallet. She pretended as if I she didn't know what was going on and had already handed my credit cards, money, and ID off to her accomplice. When the Metro came to a stop, she ran out before any of us could even really process what had just happened. It was the worst moment of my time here in Spain. We then missed our bus talking to the police, because my ticket was in my wallet (that was probably somewhere in a trashcan in a sketchy part of Madrid.) I had plenty of time to think on the long night ride back, so I came up with a few things that I would do from now on.

1. Actually use the money belt that my mom insisted I wear when traveling (sorry.)
2. Look up detailed reviews of hostels before I book them.
3. Take an earlier form of transportation so that I don't arrive to my destination at midnight.
4. Not ever take the cheap bus ride from Seville to Madrid again, because the companies aren't very sympathetic when you have to buy three new tickets after a crisis.
5. Maybe pay a little more for things next time. 
6. Don't overpack and have to carry two bags and a purse on the Metro, which clearly makes me a target.
7. Not let this experience keep me from enjoying traveling, but just be more aware next time.

And though some things about this country evoke horrible memories, today is January 26th. Today I walked along the river in shorts and a tank top. Today I layed out in the sun and 70 degree weather. Today I got a sunburn. Today I was grateful to be here. 

At the end of the day, I love Spain with all of my heart.

Un abrazo,