Monday, December 21, 2009

Navidad en España

Our afternoon flight allowed us a nice, leisurely morning; we made it to Bristol with plenty of time to spare, even considering the long check-in line for Ryanair. What Bristol International Airport lacks in size, it makes up for in foot and air traffic; that little airport was simply hoppin' when we went through, and it was all the more chaotic with severe weather conditions closing airports in Northern England and the Netherlands. We were happy that our flight was only delayed an hour and a bit, and that they actually announced it early on (as opposed to the fifteen-minute intervals we were used to with Air Canada).

Thanks to careful packing, our checked luggage was under 15 kilograms and our two carry-ons were under 10 kg each, thereby avoiding a number of Ryanair's many surcharges. Once we boarded the plane, it was easy to see why they have to limit the size of carry-on luggage: it was as cramped as I've ever seen a plane – they don't even have pouches on the backs of their seats, 'cause there'd be no room for your knees! – and, with the free-for-all seating (198 seats!), it was even more chaotic than the terminal. At one point, Tea and I were thinking about offering our seats to a family of four, as the youngest son was terribly upset that he couldn't sit near his mom, who was across the aisle from us; however, eventually they sat him across the aisle from his older brother, which he seemed quite happy with.

I mean, don't get me wrong: the flight was fine; it's just that I'm not a big fan of air travel to begin with. And the prices really are worthy of all the talk they generate, particularly if you can take advantage of their deals. One final point: what's with the colour scheme, Ryanair? Honest to goodness, I felt like I was on an enormous life-raft for the entire flight; a sensation that's no doubt enhanced by the emergency information that's printed on the back of the seat rest, which, thanks to the cramped quarters, always takes up a large portion of your field of vision at any time. That said, it was a smooth flight, and we even managed to make up some time in the air.

Aside: O.K., I lied; one additional point: smokeless cigarettes. The image of a smiling stewardess walking down the aisle, asking, “Cigarettes?” as she offers the tray of glossy packs in her hands was one that I thought was relegated to the movies of my parents' day. I gather they contain some nicotine, but I can't imagine it's very satisfying; first of all, how do you know when you're done? And while I'm on the subject, the catalogue in Ryanair's magazine includes a USB-charged, smokeless cigarette. Have you seen this thing? Apparently, while the charge lasts, it produces a 'harmless' vapour – that allows you to blow authentic smoke rings, the ad highlights – that simulates the real experience; can't remember if they contain any nicotine. The charger was the best bit: it looked like a cigarette holder for your computer, and, hey, those jokes just write themselves.

The car rental went smoothly as well, considering we booked it the night before and required an automatic. (It's bigger than we would've liked – an Opel Astra – and semi-automatic, which means it drives much heavier than we're used to, but I think that, second only to our fantastic apartment, it, and the freedom it gives us, will really make this vacation.) It was well after dark by the time we got on the road, but since we took the A-7 all the way from Málaga to San Luis de Sabinillas, Tea had no problem with the drive. (They also drive on the right in Spain, which no doubt helped.)

The final leg of our journey, however, was anything but smooth. We found our way through Sabinillas with little difficulty, but quickly realized that we'd failed to grasp the extent of the construction going on around our apartment complex, Arenal Duquesa: nobody, and I mean no one, was about, and most of the windows were dark; metal fences abounded; and there was little street lighting. Combined with the heavy rain, it was very eerie, to be honest. Worse still, there were many blocks of identical complexes, all gated, with no signs and few numbers to speak of. We really had no idea which complex was ours, and eventually decided to try our electronic fob on a random gate.

While I got a green light from the panel, the gate remained locked. Having driven around aimlessly for some time at that point, we decided to park the car on the road and see about exploring on foot. The pedestrian entrance associated with that gate didn't seem to work, but we found one further down the road that seemed to have a working keypad that accepted the code we were given. I should really pause here and note that it didn't look like more than five to ten percent of the apartments were occupied yet; the whole area felt like it was months from being ready for occupancy, to be honest, but we pressed on, in bull-headed fashion, really (upon reflection).

Since we'd been given directions to the apartment from the parking garage – it had been assumed that we'd find the appropriate gate and drive in – we went in search of the garage associated with the gate we'd just entered. The inner vehicle gate was down and locked, but the door off to one side was open, so in we went. The first thing that struck me was the lack of cars – none, to be precise – quickly followed by the few lights. As we explored, looking for the appropriate parking spot number, we passed all sorts of construction equipment, our footsteps echoing in the distance. We were out of sight of the door when we heard an enormous bang; it sounded like the wind might've caught it, but those few moments of doubt, surrounded by all those dark doorways (that would lead to the elevators at some point, but were just yawning empty then), had our hearts racing.

As we headed back to the first gate we'd tried – now inside the series of walled, attached complexes – we noted that the keypad on the pedestrian entrance was emitting a piercing alarm – and had been for some time, we realized – and the associated vehicle gate was now open to the street! Had we failed to wait long enough earlier? We had no idea, and were even more spooked to be standing around listening to this alarm that no one was paying attention to. Either way, we knew that even if this did turn out to be the right parking garage, this inner vehicle gate was still locked, and, unlike the other garage, we couldn't find another way in to explore.

Eventually, after we'd been wandering blindly in the rain for a good forty minutes, we spotted a man leaving his apartment to walk his dog. Luckily he had an excellent ear for English – and was even able to say a few words – such that we could confirm that we were in the right general area. However, the letters and numbers on our keyring were as foreign to him as they were to us (still are, in fact; they seem to bear no resemblance to the few numbers on the outside of the building).

We were a few minutes away from calling the owner of the apartment when we stumbled upon a vehicle gate leading to two separate parking garages. Like something out of an Indiana Jones or Mummy movie, Tea and I looked at each other and said, simultaneously, “A gate leading to two parkades!” – honestly, it's like our page of written instructions had become an ancient map to a long-buried treasure, and now, almost upon it, we were able to decipher the previously-cryptic direction markers. In all the confusion, we'd forgotten this key piece of information; all the outer vehicle gates to this point had led to one parking garage.

When we tried the fob on the outer gate, we got a green light again, but it also began to open. We ran down the ramp, sensing that we might soon be warm and dry, and quickly found our parking spot. From there we were able to locate the elevator, fumbling for the keyhole in the dark, thanks to poor lighting again, and finally, to the apartment itself.

There were other difficulties – the heating took a long time to kick in, which meant that the marble floors were unbearably cold, and, now getting on for 11 p.m., we couldn't get any groceries – but the worst was behind us. We couldn't help but laugh and shake our heads as we snacked on what food Tea had squirreled away in her carry-on throughout the day; as the kind gentleman who'd helped us said, we really set ourselves up for quite the first evening in Spain.

Up next: the rain in Spain...

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