I have a dream, a small wish really. To buy a world map. A large one. One that I can hang on a wall in my home. With little stickers, I want to mark the places I have visited. Red stickers for places I lived in – Bombay (before it became Mumbai), Washington DC, San Francisco, Hyderabad, Singapore. Green for places where I was a tourist – Rome, London, Sydney, Paris, Barcelona, Bali. Yellow for the ones that beckon – Turkey, Bhutan, Greece, New Zealand.
In this series, I would like to share with you, my thoughts on some of the places I have visited – exotic locations, religious pilgrimages, family holidays, business trips and outings with friends.
The first essay is one I wrote on a business trip cum holiday with my good friend, Anupama to Spain in 2012.
We were strolling along La Rambla, the most happening part of Barcelona, ice-cream cone in hand, passing shops selling souvenirs, juices and trinkets. We had arrived from Granada a few hours earlier. The large poster announcing a series of concerts at local basilicas displayed at a travel information kiosk caught our attention. A long list of performances were scheduled for the months of October and November at various spectacular locations within the city. There was only one that we could possibly attend, a Spanish guitar performance by Manuel Gonzalez that would begin in a couple of hours at a church that appeared to be located within walking distance of La Rambla. Did we have a list of places to see, things to do, eat, shop and admire in Barcelona? Of course we did. But the best experiences happen when there is a change in plan. We booked tickets for that evening’s performance.
We barely made it in time to the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi, a beautiful church built in the Gothic style of architecture. The seats were almost full with a low buzz as people waited for the artist to arrive. At exactly 9 p.m. Manuel Gonzalez, a distinguished looking man appeared on stage with the Spanish guitar and started playing. We had a program brochure in Spanish listing the pieces to be played. But it did not matter what was written or announced, the music enveloped everyone in that room.
The wonderful acoustics of the monument, the ambience of the location, the time of day and the mastery of the artist over his instrument, I am not sure if any one of this was responsible for the temporary bliss that overtook me as I found myself immersed in this wonderful music. If I closed my eyes, I could have sworn that the sounds emanating from the stage were from a piano, or was it the drums or a saxophone perhaps? The artist was highly accomplished in taking the instrument to its limits of creation.
Music, particularly instrumental music has the ability to transcend barriers of language fluency, accent and articulation to make a connection with the listener. As a person familiar with Indian music, I am always looking to connect with something I already know – the instrument itself, the raaga, the movie, composer, artist. I try to compare it with something I have heard previously, see if I remember the words. The pure joy of the moment gets diluted by tricks of memory. Here none of my past knowledge mattered, a simple melody, a succession of notes, a series of tunes registered in my consciousness. And filled me up.
Spain as a country seems immersed in music. Whether it was the banjo player outside Puerta de la Justica at Alhambra, or the guitarist in the sunny square near the Alcazar palace in Seville, or the unusual music created by a strange instrument called the “handpan” outside the cathedral in Granada, they all created haunting melodies, some sang words that I didn’t understand but could probably guess, while others just struck a chord in my heart, completely bypassing my bossy head.
As Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”. With each day that I spent in beautiful Spain, struggling to communicate my need for vegetarian food or ask for directions to the toilets or enquire about train timings, I felt less uncomfortable at my “foreignness” and more connected to total strangers who showed the way or happily took photographs when asked. I read somewhere that it is important to “Travel more. Getting lost may help you find yourself”. Isn’t that the purpose of all journeys, if not all travel?