Spotted recently

A man in the front of the bus was deeply unsettled by a roaring conversation between a gypsy family and the bus driver. When the family got off, the man snarled about how loud and obnoxious they had been. (In truth, my nerves were a bit shattered too.) But the bus driver shrugged and instead of engaging in an argument, said, “That’s their way.” He, for one, was willing to roll with it.

Three women in brightly colored djellabas crowded around a fourth woman holding her large handicapped son in her lap. She spoon-fed him yogurt as he grinned at the women crowding around him. The women’s happy exclamations told him, in short, “We delight in you.”

In low tones, a new acquaintance assured me that even with multiple children with mental and physical disabilities, the last thing she wanted was people feeling sorry for her. When life got stressful, she danced. Literally. 

I was coming home, tired and worn. As I rounded the corner on my street, I heard a greeting… from above. I looked up and saw my neighbor’s fuzzy gray head peeking over the window sill. “I thought that was you!” she called cheerfully.

At the bus station, a demonstrative Spanish couple bid each other farewell with an exaggerated display of affection. The North African taxistas started shuffling their feet and darting glances at the walls and ceiling. Not part of either world, I just sat on my concrete bench and enjoyed the cultural clash. 

“I feel so alone,” my stooped neighbor told me, his eyes watery. His wife of many years had passed away suddenly and his loss was nearly unbearable. He couldn’t imagine life without the love of his life.

We all waited and waited and the bus driver fumed as the elderly man loaded his cart under the bus and carefully counted out his pennies for the bus fare. He stumbled into his seat, mask askew and tag peeking out from under his cap. And all I could see was that he was someone’s father. 

When I greeted a stranger on the street, she stopped and broke into a smile that spilled over the top of her lowered mask. Her cheerful conversation stunned me, even though I had been the initiator. Had I met her before? But no. Although most people are afraid to talk to strangers, it just turns out that there are a few friendly people in Mytown!


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Prepositionless laughter

A friend was telling us about someone she knew who got a fine for not wearing a mask. “The police gave him a fine for 300 euro and 50 cents.”

“Fifty cents?” I asked.

She nodded vigorously. “Yes. Three-hundred euro and 50 cents.”

We giggled and speculated where the 50 cents came from. Disobeying the law isn’t something to laugh at, but the ludicrousness of the amount caught me off guard. In Spain, indecent exposure has nothing to do with nudity on the beaches and everything to do with not putting a piece of cloth on your face. 

I told my family, “I get tired of wearing a mask all of the time, but I found a way to amuse myself. Yesterday, I made a beaver face almost the entire time I was in a store. It gave me this strange and private satisfaction.” 

So we laugh because sometimes we are helpless to do much else. Except maybe go crazy. A friend told me that when she worked in the Alzheimer’s ward. The pain, the sadness doesn’t disappear with a laugh, not even close. But the day we lose our sense of humor, we are treading close to insanity. 

Maya Angelou said, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.” 

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in line, waiting to get onto our late bus back to Immigrantville. A man who had just disembarked, stood in front of the bus and snapped a photo. He didn’t look angry or particularly devious. A little high, maybe, but I didn’t bother accounting for his mental state. He looked non-confrontational enough. 

That is, until he approached the bus driver’s window. Shouting echoed through the hollow bus station. I still didn’t pay attention; Spanish culture is usually loud and abrupt.

But I gasped when coins suddenly showered the bus floor. The man had reached through the driver’s window and flipped the coin drawer. I didn’t hear everything that went on, and I’m probably glad I didn’t because as the man slinked away, the driver bounded off of the bus, bellowing a word I won’t record for posterity. 

There in the bus station waiting room, one pummeled the other with a “caution wet floor” sign. Then one threw the other against the glass wall with a thud. It was impossible to tell who was winning, but they were planning to kill each other, I was sure.

With the other stunned observers, I started toward the action with absolutely no clue how to help. Someone had the presence of mind to flag down a passing police van and a crew of armed officers piled out to join the action. 

Shouting, police removed curious onlookers. I was praying aloud from behind my mask. The anger was real, hot, coming from somewhere deep that had risen to the surface after being suppressed for too long.

As we waited for the information to be gathered and fines to be issued, passengers gathered the coins that had scattered, whether to help or to help themselves was a little unclear. Others returned to the bus, laughing. 

Wait. Laughing? What was wrong with these people? Had they no respect? Maybe not. But maybe, the incident was just enough to push them to their own edge and they had two options: lose it or laugh. 

In Arabic, there is an important distinction between laughing at and laughing with. In those near-crazy moments, the distinction isn’t so clear. Sometimes it’s just prepositionless laughing, laughing to keep your nose above the murky waters of life until your flailing arms snag the rescuing hand of Hope.


Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

Tonight, I flew

The week began with the bus radio blaring, “I want to get away; I want to fly away.”

That day, I got away over café coffee and the chilly breeze sailing through the hollow bus station. But tonight, I flew. 

After two months in lockdown, was I ready to function in normal life? In another language? Another culture? I had my doubts. 

Ready or not, an Eid invitation came late last night. Even though I hadn’t fasted for the month of Ramadan, I was still invited to celebrate the end of it.

I had already eaten lunch when I arrived at five. That didn’t stop friends from heaving a giant platter of couscous onto the table. “Eat!”

I had missed their sense of humor and practicality–pieces of shared life that feels second-hand over whatsapp. There was too much to catch up on to waste time fussing about cultural propriety; I ended up just being me, fumbling language and all. 

We changed houses partway through the evening and ate again, a snack consisting mostly of sugar, white flour, caffeine, and grease. I did little piggies up and down little girl toes and taught the nose-rubbing “Eskimo kiss.” We dressed up, took pictures, laughed, talked, spilled juice, and cleaned up. The conversation that teased the deep part of our hearts was worth this sugar mania that is lasting past midnight. 

Snack was finished by 10, just in time for a phone call from North Africa that caught me broom in hand. Friends just checking in. 

I walked 45 minutes home with a burr in my sock, sticky but happy. So happy, in fact, that after waving good night to the neighbor watching TV in his garage, I bounded up the two flights of stairs to our apartment. 

Why is it that some days take the breath out of you and leave you with a stunning piece of life instead? It’s not the moments themselves that are stunning, but the steady tick-tock of a day held in God’s hand. 

And, yes, I brushed my teeth and took a melatonin. Good night!

Along the coast

I felt more at home with the worn travelers and scruffy men bumming cigarettes than I had browsing a mall full of things I didn’t need and lounging in Pad Thai Wok after my pad thai was gone and all I had left was C.S. Lewis.

I moved on to Willa Cather at the bus station. A French speaker asked for a cigarette. A worn man asked for 80 cents. Neither bothered me. I belonged enough not to care that I had a bad hair day and the hem of my skirt was brown from being too long on dirty streets two days in a row.

A group of loud Americans clambered off the bus. I knew they were American before I heard them speak. –Why are we such a loud culture?– Their laughter pulsated under the metal roof.

A retired Baptist preacher introduced himself. We’re involved in the same sort of work, he said. But he’s short term and I’m long term. That’s about as far as we got before my bus pulled up and nearly bumped us with its stout nose.

It was the end of my stay in Málaga for a two-day literacy training. I could post pictures of my trip, but the truth is, the hours I wasn’t in training, I was parked on my airbnb couch, basking in the aloneness.

Besides my trip to Málaga shortly before the coronavirus lockdown, my roommate and I also spent a day in Adra. Yes, there is a pattern: both Málaga and Adra are along the coast. Sound lovely?

Well, I’m not going to lie; the trip to Adra wasn’t great. The wind quickly banished my dream of lounging on the beach for countless hours. To say nothing of the few rude people that cast a shadow over the rest of the trip. But, I’ll flood you with pictures that make you believe our trip was a blast. Really, it was okay, but it might be a while before I go back. (And next time, I’ll bring my own personal bathroom and a can of pepper spray.)

When in North Africa- Part 1

Last year, a fellow immigrant in Spain asked me to visit her when she went back to her country for the summer. I didn’t. 

But this year I did. My roommate and I navigated buses, taxis, and even a pre-Eid ferry that made us stand in line for hours to get a simple passport stamp. 

Just as our final taxi approached the place where we would meet my friend, we lunged over a pothole and I dumped my water bottle on myself. I was so soggy that when I got up, leftover water pooled in the leather seat. 

From the backseat, I reached my suitcase and managed a swift and subtle change while the other passengers remained in blessed oblivion. 

My friend, her husband, and her mother were waiting at the taxi stand. 

“Gather yourselves.” My friend called her sister as we approached the sprawling countryside house that would be our home for the week.

grape arbor above salmon colored house
large watermelons hiding in vines

My roommate and I had long since resigned ourselves to the possibility of a public sleeping area, a dirty squatty, and bucket showers. Instead, we were shown into a salon the size of our entire apartment. And the bathroom was bigger than my bedroom at home. Outside the kitchen door was a grape arbor heavy with weaving vine and plump grape clusters. 

The house was surrounded on three sides by peanut and melon crops. The fourth side led down a steep hill to the ruggedly beautiful beach. Rolling land of green fields tuned my farm girl soul. I stood on the roof and drank in the fresh air. 

landscape of beach and the atlantic

“The air is still new,” my friend pointed to the chilly sea.

We began to meet the family. The house was alive with adult children and a handful of grandchildren. Most of the family resided within the walls of the family home. But there seemed space enough. Faces began to blur as the night wore on and we grew sleepier.

Our hosts spread a table with tea and all of its accompaniments. When we had filled to the brim, someone asked when we wanted dinner. Given that it was 11 p.m., we sat with widened eyes until I worked up the polite courage to ask, “What time do you usually eat?”

My friend laughed. “We don’t usually eat another meal,” she admitted and laughed again when we noticeably relaxed. 

They sent us to bed, still chuckling about the ominous beef and prune tagine.

One minute too late

One minute too late. I watched the bus roaring away, atypically on time. 

Where could I have gained that missing minute? Not talking so long with the receptionist? Running down the street? J-walking? Not stopping to greet the kebab owner? Dashing out of the phone repair shop without the normal pleasantries when I found out the owner spoke English? I had known my time was limited, but…

But as the bus roared away, suddenly I was excited. Right there, surrounded by empty benches, I felt a thrill go through me.

I had missed the bus by a hair. Maybe God had orchestrated this for a reason. What else could He have in mind? 

I looked around me, expecting to see that one person that God would nudge me to talk to. But there was no one. Slowly, I meandered out of the station, determined to put myself in the way of what God was up to.

I ended up sitting at an outdoor table of a café, sipping a drink and watching the world pass by. A world that took no notice that I was waiting to be used by God. 

When the hour was up, I made my way back to the bus station and endured an uneventful ride home. I stared out the window. “God, why did you let me miss the bus? Why didn’t you send anyone for me to talk to? God, did you really redeem that time or not?”

How will I ever know? But does it even matter? God may have been up to something. Or maybe all He was up to was showing me that He doesn’t need to give me an account of what He’s up to.


Photo credit: M.L.K.

Under the Sevillan sun

The sun’s fury didn’t really matter from the front row of the bus. I plugged in ear buds and listened to Los Miserables. (No, that’s not a spelling error; I really am attempting to listen to Hugo in Spanish.)

But I kept drifting into that almost dream state where thoughts don’t make sense and I happily embrace the sleep I know is coming. But then a truck and trailer tried to pull into our lane. The bus driver honked, swerved, and muttered something under his breath. That was the end of my nap.

But it didn’t matter, because tired or no, I was on my way to Sevilla.

As the Andalusian landscape whizzed by, I enjoyed the rolling olives groves, the plains of ripened wheat, the fields of yellow sunflowers, and the occasional glimpse of stubborn snow on mountain peaks.

My first impression of Sevilla? The realization that there are two bus stations and I was at one and my friend at the other.

Finally reunited, we dropped the luggage in the car and strolled through the Plaza de España, despite the scorching afternoon sun.

brick plaza with horse and carriage in forefront

We met our airbnb hosts and then set out to shop and fill our empty bellies with Udon’s veggie yaki udon.

The next morning, we visited Las Setas de la Encarnación (The Mushrooms of the Incarnation… whose name sounds infinitely nobler in Spanish), a giant structure that provides a lookout of the city. Honestly, the modern bulk seemed a little out of place in the old city; yet, there was something intriguing about climbing a mushroom. And the view was fantastic.

mushroom-shaped structure
white city of sevilla spain

Strolling toward the cathedral, we happily made pit stops to enjoy the lovely city streets and even watch a bit of street flamenco.

At the Cathedral of Sevilla, not only did we behold the grandeur of the outside walls, but were able to walk around inside and observe the ongoing mass.

elaborate facade of cathedral

We stopped for coffee in the Jewish quarter before taking a picnic lunch to the beautiful María Luisa Park. Regretfully (in retrospect), we barely made it beyond the first row of luscious trees. We were tired and hungry.

We strolled home along the Guadalquivir and topped off the evening by attempting a picnic in the Jardín Americano, a park from the 1992 Expo. Not a good idea. If ever a park could give vibes… We backtracked when the only people slinking around looked like they were not the picnicking sort.

Instead, we sat on concrete boulders along the river’s lip and dipped our toes in the water. We talked until long after the sun had gone down.

bridge over river at sunset

The next day was a picnic in the Alamillo Park (see a “picnic in the park” theme?) and time to soak in more of Sevilla’s scenery.

We also met up with friends to experience real flamenco. Photos weren’t allowed, but they wouldn’t have captured the experience anyway. Not the guitarist nor the vocalist. Photos wouldn’t capture the way the dancer’s eyes glittered concentration beneath the changing lights. Or how his face gleamed with the sweat of maintaining perfect control of his feet in time to the music, even while at times keeping his upper body motionless. The whirring fans did little to cool the room packed with eager spectators. Our tippy wooden bench always seemed to fit one more and why not?

On our final morning, we awoke to banging and drilling in the apartment below. We packed up and did a bit more strolling of the streets. Our last adventure was the unexpected and charming Parcería Cafe.

latte and smoothie on wooden tray next to plant

I thought I was ready to head back to Immigrantville, but as the bus pulled out of the station, I admit that there were tears stinging the backs of my eyes.

Of buses

Long, long ago, I posted about the preferred public transportation of North Africa here and here. I guess it’s time that I gave you a better picture of the public transportation available here in southern Spain.

Within the last month, I have had strangers approach me at the bus stop to ask about bus schedules or destinations. I began to wonder if, somewhere along the line, I have become an expert of the local bus system. Or perhaps I simply radiate confidence as I perch myself on a grimy bus stop seat and become so engrossed in a book that a driver has to honk to make me notice the looming bus. (Really, that has happened only once.)

I used to be the one asking the “When does the bus come?” questions as I waited, peering down the street for the bus that must have already gone.

Well, I have learned a lot in the last year and a half, considering I knew nothing when I arrived: 

  • Buses prefer to be on time but usually come late, on rare occasions come early, and once in a while, don’t come at all.
  • There are certain bus drivers who let you disembark using the front door despite the sign above their heads that say “Disembark at the back door only.”
  • Going through tourist towns always warrant long stops for confused adults double checking that they’re on the right bus and counting out exact change.
  • Women bus drivers are scarier than men drivers. I’m not a fan of women driver stereotypes, but don’t remind me of that when I’m furiously crunching peppermints as we careen through roundabouts without slowing down and whiz down narrow roads lined with terrified pedestrians.

There are days I arrive late for appointments because of a late bus. Once, I missed my bus by one minute, arriving just in time to watch it pull out of the station. Passengers with glazed eyes stared out the windows, already settling into the dry boredom of public transportation. (I had to wait an hour for the next bus.) 

But bus rides cannot always be described as boring. I witnessed a yelling match between a passenger and a driver that ended with the driver threatening to call the police and the passenger calling him a– well, never mind what he called him.

Sometimes the smells–be it perfume or B.O.–are overwhelming and I pretend to rest my face in my scarf but really am just trying to coax myself to breathe.

One time, a man boarded the bus, his head wrapped tightly in a scarf. We didn’t have to wait long to discover why. Scratch! Scratch! Scratch! The furious scratching made me thankful for all of the passengers without lice.

I often meet up with someone I know who is taking the same bus.  I’ve bounced babies, played peekaboo, and given a mini English lesson.

I have also met some interesting people, struck up conversations with women, and fielded those invasive “are you married?” questions from men I would rather not meet. Once, I even got a bag of dripping fish plopped on my lap. Read about that here.  

But overall, when nothing is required of me, I offer nothing and just admire the scenery bouncing by the window.  I have spend hours and hours staring at the sea of white plastic of greenhouses and then the sea of blue blue blue Mediterranean. One time, I even saw dolphins.

And really, who can complain about public transportation with a view like that?

Belated birthday trip: Madrid

Two years late, my friend and I began to plan our 30th birthday trip. Ten years ago, we had dreams of celebrating in India. Then India morphed into Portugal. And finally, Portugal became Madrid, Pisa, and Florence. And the 30th birthday notion got a bit murky when my sister joined our group and helped plan the trip. After all, why not? None of us are 30 anyway. 

So there were three of us bouncing along in the Almería-Madrid bus. In Madrid, we met up with our airbnb host and attempted to regain our land legs by climbing the steps to the top story of a too-tall apartment building.

We had dinner in an unimpressive restaurant with a flickering fluorescent light. Madrid had to be better than that, we knew.

It was.

The next day:

But our favorite part of Madrid? The street musicians.

Would I do this trip again?: North Africa part 5

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

The last two nights of my North African sleep were interrupted by an unsettled rooster in a concrete courtyard just over the wall. At 4 a.m., I began to envision a warm bowl of rooster noodle soup. Just a room away, Erika was preparing to brandish her shiny knife set.

Despite the lack of sleep, Erika and I made chocolate cupcakes and took them to Arabic language school. We laughed with former teachers about old times and chatted about the present. Then I wandered home in the sunshine and stopped for a potato patty sandwich with extra hot sauce.

That evening, we ex-pats fellowshipped, telling stories, talking about our dreams, and praying.

Time was winding down quickly.

In the morning, I hauled my heavy-laden backpack to the airport taxi. As the traveling hours stretched ahead of me, I tried to wrap my mind around all that had happened: starting with the multiple trips to the Almería immigration office and ending with the bumpy bus ride home.

Unless I took time to process all of the joys and sorrows that had been packed into this tiny space of time, I would not experience the fullness of my trip.

And bouncing along in that bumpy bus, I kept returning to one question: If everything remained unchanged, would I do this trip again?

Definitely.

“There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well.”

(Nicholas Sparks)