On a path towards zen or madness

Jamon blackboard, Granada, Spain
Jamón blackboard | Photo by Lauren Girardin

I’ll learn soon enough that one should not seek out jamón, rather jamón happens to you (and happens often). No matter. On my first night in Spain, I’m in search of flavor and jamón’s high on the menu.

My first taste nearly brings me to tears. Admittedly, I’m unusually exhausted and ravenous after two and a half sweaty weeks in Morocco, so I might be having a histrionic jamón reaction.

Todd and I are eating a surtido de montadillos (assortment of little sandwiches) at an otherwise forgettable café in Algeciras, a town that most people quickly pass through between the ferry that carried them out of Morocco to the buses that will haul them into the rest of Spain. We stay the night, eating simple but flavorful food and taking multiple hot showers before heading further into the southern Spanish state of Andalucia.

We’re in search of grand Moorish architecture of the type and scale that skipped town in Morocco – pillars stretching high to meet Tim Burton-esque striped arches, walls covered in loopy carvings of Arabic calligraphy, and enough hand-painted tiles to cover God’s bathroom (since even an all-powerful being must break the seal after a night out drinking cerveza).

Tiled wall at the Alhambra
Tiled wall at the Alhambra | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Friends and guidebooks gave us two pieces of strong advice: one, visit Granada’s Alhambra, an ancient hilltop Moorish fortress, and two, reserve your tickets far ahead.

But Todd and I are in a tranquilo traveling groove in which we figure out our route only one town ahead, leaving later decisions up to whim and bus schedules. The only thing that may hold us back from a destination is the rare but inevitable “yeh can’t get deah from heah” – or when the advance tickets to the Alhambra are sold out.

Since we can’t get our tickets online, we have no choice but to wake before dawn to get in line for one of the 2,000 day-of tickets. At 7 a.m., we’re standing behind less than 500 bleary-eyed others, waiting for the ticket sales to start.

We’re in. We’re golden.

An hour passes. We’re still waiting.

The line’s advancement is so slow that it’s barely perceptible. Constant announcements in four languages remind us about the difference between morning and afternoon entry tickets, and count down how many tickets are left – the number does change. An Italian couple in matching purple shirts are behind us in line. They have a microscopic sense of personal space, constantly bumping into me and practically using my head for an ashtray.

View of Granada from the Alhambra
View of Granada from the Alhambra | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Todd and I split a jamón baguette for breakfast. The clock ticks off another hour. We talk about celebrities and whether they get private time at tourist sites like the Alhambra or if they have to head in with the hordes. We wonder, if Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were in the Alhambra, would tourists pay more attention to the star couple than the grand site they came to see? Would Todd get distracted if he saw Bob Dylan checking out some Moorish mosaic work?

Like most people waiting – except, of course, our Italians – we grow silent. The sun has risen over the tops of the trees and the day has grown hot. Sunblock and water bottles come out of day packs. The line shifts as people try to hide in the limited shade cast by trees. I stand in the shadow of the tall man ahead of me; he’s my beach umbrella. Another hour goes by.

I could go crazy, slipping easily into a deep, bitter madness. Instead I accept my place in this world and in this line. The tickets are assured, there’s just something I have to do first. I have to wait.

Time is passing. Sun is shining. Italians are smoking. Then there’s nothing. It’s all there is. It’s everything that ever was.

Two hours more. We’ve made it around a bend in the line. One more bend to go.

Erik and Helen, on line at the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Erik and Helen | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Todd finally breaks the silence. He’s figured out that, based on how long we’ve been waiting and how many tickets remain, they’re selling less than one ticket per minute. He theorizes an easy explanation: there’s only one ticket seller who has only one arm with a hand that has only one finger, speaks only Russian, and takes frequent siestas.

There’s something about Todd’s persistent sense of humor and our laughter that encourages a nearby couple to talk to us. Erik and Helen are charming, multi-lingual Danes on trip through the Iberian peninsula. They are frequent travelers, so we trade stories about the places we’ve been, the lines we’ve waited on, and being part of a crowd.

Erik tells us about a trip his family made to Minneapolis, Minnesota to attend an international conference for little people. One of their sons is a dwarf. Erik describes the surreal experience of standing in the conference lobby surrounded by hundreds of excited, socializing people and being completely ignored because he and Helen were above everyone else’s eye level.

Talking with Erik and Helen helps the next three hours pass quickly. Suddenly, it’s our turn. As Todd and I triumphantly walk up to one of the two ticket sellers – who has no visible deformities – we turn to give a thumbs up to Erik and Helen, who are next in line (we let the Italians cut ahead long ago).

Though we expect to run into Erik and Helen inside the Alhambra, we don’t. It’s a really big place. But, they have our email address, so we hope to hear from them again, online this time.

Photos from Granada, Spain

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.