Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Madrid - El Retiro - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 1 (Part 3)

Walking through bustling corridors filled with shops and people hurrying in the morning rush hour, I find an information booth to ask for directions. After some more walking, and guessing at which corridors I was supposed to walk down, I emerge into an enormous atrium with a garden containing full sized palm trees, and restaurants and stalls lining the sides. Following the signs from here, I find the luggage storage room, hidden behind all the action, in an unsightly corner of the station. After going through a brief security check, I find the smallest, and cheapest, locker I can fit my gear in, prepare a small day pack, and deposit some coins. Finally, I was free of my debilitating pack.

Freedom. That was all I felt at that moment. No school, no work, no pack, no responsibilities. Walking back through the lobby, I stop to marvel at the palm garden. There were a variety of tropical plants there, and a system of pipes and nozzles to spray the plants with warm mist from time to time. This was my first vision of Spain, my first vision of what was to come for the next two and a half months. To mark this moment, I take a photo of the palm garden. The first of thousands of photos that I would take at hundreds of different places this summer.

I decide to take it easy today. After a long flight across many time zones with nearly no sleep, I though it would be a good idea to have a relaxing day in the sun to recover from my trip and to readjust my circadian rhythm. I had the perfect place to go. Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid's most famous park. Covering 350 acres, it would provide a full day's worth of relaxation and casual exploration.

Walking out of the station, I take a brief tour of the neighbourhood. A cozy melange of bustling caf├ęs and small, quiet back streets lined with worn-in, distinctly Spanish buildings full of character. The bright sun woke me up and made me feel alive and energetic even after a sleepless night. Passing by small lucotorios, offering Internet and phone service, I make a mental note of their prices, as I know I will be relying on e-mail and Internet to coordinate, research, and organize my trip as I go. Ambling toward El Retiro, I enjoy the stately architecture along the way. Before long, I was walking through the lush greenery of the park among tall, twisted trees, fountains, lakes, and statues. There was a very well laid-out rose garden, the famous Monument to Alfonso XII, and the beautiful Palacio de Cristal. I enjoyed finding small, out of the way paths winding through the dense forest, through beautiful gardens filled with a variety of different flowers and plants. I sat by a lake to watch ducks, fish, and turtles race to reach breadcrumbs thrown in by locals.

Around lunch time, I walked out of the park to grab something simple to eat. Throughout the trip, I would do most of my eating at simple local shops or buy ingredients from markets and supermarkets. On the way back to the park, I decide to get some sunscreen since I didn't bring any liquids or gels due to the new restrictions on carry-on luggage.

After exploring some shops, I realize that sunscreen was sold only in pharmacies, all of which are marked by disproportionally large, green neon signs flashing a dizzying array of complicated patterns. Walking into a pharmacy, or rather, buzzing into a pharmacy since all pharmacy doors are locked, I patiently waited for the person ahead of me to complete her purchase. The pharmacist smiled at me. I start "... uh... do you speak English?" A blank stare. Unfortunately for me, I discovered only later that surprisingly few people in Spain can actually understand any English, but a good portion of the population understands French. Not having thought this through and not having a backup plan, I quickly scan the shelves that I can see for sunscreen. Nothing. "Umm.... sun?" I point to the sky. "Creme. Lotion!" I smile and rub my left arm with my right hand. A puzzled look followed by some words spoken in Spanish that sounded like a question Now being caught completely off guard, I repeat my gestures, this time with more vigour. Now I'm also rubbing my face and play-acting an entire scene in which I look at the sun, appear threatened by it, and am rubbing sunscreen all over, interspersed some some related words such as "sun" or "sunburn." Suddenly, the pharmacist looks like she understands, walks into the back room and comes out with a small tube. It was toothpaste. At first, I started making the motion of rejecting the toothpaste, but realizing that I was already embarrassed enough and not wanting to continue my silent play about me cowering from the sun, I smile and pretend it's what I want. I pay one Euro, butcher the pronunciation of "gracias" and walk out. As I walk out, the pharmacist was beaming about the fact that she was able to figure out what I came in to buy.

I was eventually able to find a tube of sunscreen at another pharmacy, but it was very expensive, so I thought I would wait until Morocco to buy a tube, hoping that it would be cheaper there. It turns out sunscreen can be ordered by saying "solar" in a Spanish pharmacy. I feel stupid not trying that earlier.

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