There are always different ways a story can be told. Our story of Sevilla can be told in the travel brochure way: SEVILLA IS AWESOME. YOU SHOULD GO! It can also be told as a cautionary tale, in the sense of BEWARE THE WING-IT METHOD. THE WING-IT METHOD IS NOT FOR AMATEURS, IT IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS, IT IS NOT FOR INTERMEDIATE USE EITHER. Even in a world-class city like Sevilla. A two-week trip can absorb a couple of bad days. A shorter trip might lay in tatters.
We woke up well rested on our first morning in Sevilla. It started raining hard in the middle of the night, which is a drowsy kind of a sound when you’re in a tent and you have checked that nothing is leaking. The only thing to do outside is to get soaked, so it feels like a solid bet to try to wait out the weather. We slept in. The last few days had been full of constant movement, and it was nice to have some unstructured time. We’d make it a rest day and do nothing more than catch up on chores and errands. So we thought. We were about to pay the price for relaxing our vigilance on the infrastructure.
The first problem was that we had pushed at least a day too long on laundry. Our trips over the last two days, to Tangier and Gibraltar, had filled our schedule to the brink. We had no clean socks or underwear and our towels needed a wash, too. Looking back, we should have asked about laundry facilities when we arrived in La Línea two nights earlier. The next two problems were more pressing. We were out of food and we still had no fuel canister for cooking. There I was, wearing nothing but my rain pants, flip flops, and jacket with a somewhat transparent warm-weather top underneath, not exactly ready for prime time. I got a fresh mosquito bite on my bare ankle while we waited for our two loads.
It’s so easy to see things in retrospect. We left two hours later than we should have. We had overscheduled ourselves all week. We counted on the easy availability of what are really fringe hobbyist cooking supplies, assuming that Spanish campings would have hot plates like Icelandic campings sometimes do, not planning any backups. Add in heavy rain, low blood sugar, and one person with a missing toenail, and there is not much further that the discipline of mood maintenance can stretch. Rainy days are perfect for visiting museums, but they can be miserable when outdoors all day.
We couldn’t find the bus stop. We stopped in three nearby stores looking for propane, but didn’t find any in the appropriate format. We found the bus stop and waited with a local teenage girl, who eventually called her mom and had a frantic conversation. The (hourly) bus finally arrived, 27 minutes late. This would prove to be the sole late transportation connection of our entire trip. At this point we were both irritable, hungry, and frustrated. It was nearly evening and all we’d had all day was a protein bar apiece.
The Spanish national habit of closing restaurants between 4 and 7 or 8 was known to us, but we hadn’t experienced it yet. Due to the late bus, we got downtown minutes into this dead period. We went to no fewer than five restaurants that proved to be closed. We wandered the streets in futility and stumbled across a miniature herbolario, where I picked up supplies to last until the end of the trip. A few doors down, we found a larger grocery store and finished the rest of our list. We had food but still no way to heat it up. My husband had a headache. I checked my purse and discovered that at some point, I had removed the vial of headache tablets I have kept there for the last five years. Then I realized my journal had gotten wet through the backpack.
The rain had gotten into my boot as well. My damp sock had soaked the exposed skin on my toe and the nearby thin shell of new nail. It started to get increasingly uncomfortable, then unbearable, then Really Not Kidding unbearable. I was limping. As a marathon runner, I’ve done plenty of limping; if I really want or need to get somewhere on foot, it’s not so much a mobility factor as a grit factor. It was starting to feel like nothing was going right. We walked a mile to what Google described as an “outdoor store” that was really only a soccer store.
We quarreled in the street.
It happens. We’ve never been on a trip when we haven’t overheard at least one marital squabble. On our honeymoon, it was a man roaring at a woman: “WHAT KIND OF A PERSON, LEAVES A BAG?!?” They shouted at each other for two days. You know they had to be married because no roommates, friends, or adult siblings would ever be so nasty to each other, especially not over that kind of time period. We’ve been woken up at 7 AM by a married couple fighting in a nearby tent (Hungarian?) and by a young man shouting at his girlfriend on the sidewalk (Icelandic). The first live German phrase I ever heard was at Heathrow, when a woman left her presumed date at the gate during check-in, calling in a Parthian shot: “Du bist scheisse!” If she had a ticket, she never boarded that flight... Either people get this frustrated at each other as a matter of course, or the additional stresses of travel wear down their resolve and they lack the willpower to be courteous and considerate. We plan around theft, delays, missed flights, sunburn, insect bites, indigestion, rain, changing our minds about what to wear, lost wallets, boredom, and every other eventuality. Rarely do we plan what we’ll do when we’re just on our last nerves, not having a good time, and then one more thing goes wrong. Or five. There is no travel insurance for annoyance. Yet there’s no point spending the money, packing, or suffering through jet lag if we can’t figure out how to salvage a trip after a cruddy day.
We pulled ourselves together and went to the bus stop back to our camping. We got out at the same shopping center where we had been two hours earlier. I sat on a bench outside while my husband went into the Target-style store and looked at options for a stove. He’s an engineer and might have been able to jerry-rig something that would carry us three nights. It turned out that out of all the propane and butane stove components on the shelves, none were compatible with any others! He came out half an hour later with an expensive, low-quality car camping stove that wound up breaking. This, coupled with the large new propane canisters we had to throw away in Madrid, made using a propane backpacking stove prohibitively expensive and high maintenance. We learned that lesson the hard way. Before we do another trip of this nature, there will be some experimentation.
While I was sitting on the bench, I put my head in my hands. An older Spanish gentleman came over to me and asked, in Spanish, “Has something happened?” He looked so kind. His concern touched me and made me want to cry, but I didn’t want to alarm him and I would have needed an hour to cobble together a couple of sentences for him. I said I was okay. He searched my eyes and walked backward a few steps before leaving. How extraordinary. At home, I’m pretty sure I would have had to be unconscious or copiously bleeding before a stranger would come over to check on me.
We went back to camp. It was evening and time to eat. We had resolved all the problems that beset us at the start of the day: All our clothes were clean, we had groceries and a working stove, we knew where the bus stop was, the rain had stopped, and we knew the locations of at least three restaurants we might try when they were open. I was able to blow-dry my journal a bit with the restroom hand dryer. We had nothing further to do before we left for home, nothing other than enjoying ourselves and breaking camp on the last day. The day had been successful in every way, except for two things: POOR PLANNING and MORALE.
May my tale of woe serve to prevent similar hassles for at least one other person.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.