One of the most exciting and nerve-racking aspects of traveling in a foreign country is navigating the public transportation system. It is often a combination effort, utilizing your (in my case, limited) knowledge of the local language and any logic skills you may have to help you navigate the maze of routes, platforms, buses, trains, or planes depending on which mode of transportation you choose. During my five days and four nights in Spain, one of which that was solely traveling, I ventured with a group of two friends from Cadiz to Algeciras, Malaga, and finally our destination in El Chorro. During our journey, we were able to sample many of the modes of transportation in Spain while riding buses, trains, and cars to carry us to our various destinations.
Our travel expedition began on the morning of September 6th, 2010 at the painfully early hour of 6 AM with what is normally an already difficult task of waking up (for a college student at least), that was made all the more difficult by the lack of a working alarm clock. My roommate and travel partner, Josh, and I both have Verizon Wireless phones that, unfortunately, do not work in Spain because of differing networks. This also means that our phones’ clocks do not work in Spain, a little known fact that I found out about the hard way the previous morning when I did not wake up in time for my Semester at Sea trip to the Grazalema Natural Park. To fix this problem we had to rely on our other travel companion, Cooper, to wake us up at 6 AM via phone call. This was not much of a consolation to me, and I think I slept all of a couple hours that evening. Cooper came through for us the next morning, and by 6:15 AM we had disembarked the ship and were on our way to the bus station for the first leg of our journey to Malaga by way of Algeciras.
When we first boarded the bus, we realized for the first time that what we had initially thought was a three-hour bus ride, was in actuality a five-hour ride. At first this seemed to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience, but as the minutes turned into hours, the beautiful Spanish countryside that was at first captivating and new became more and more mundane with each additional green pasture or mountain that we passed.
One of the few highlights of this extended bus trip was viewing the extensive network of windmills dotting the mountaintops as if inspired by Cervantes. It is interesting to view the contrast of progressive changes Spain is making for the future against its rich historical heritage that predates many other settlements across the world.
It is always fascinating to watch and converse with other travelers in a foreign country. On our bus we encountered a mix of locals, some traveling for work, others traveling for family, while tourists (mostly backpackers like ourselves) were searching for the cheapest way to get from point A to point B. On the final leg of the journey into Malaga, I had the opportunity to try out my rudimentary Spanish with an older gentlemen, albeit with only moderate success.
Our primary task when we finally arrived in Malaga just after noon was acquiring train tickets for that evening into our final destination of El Chorro. The owner of the bed and breakfast where we were staying told us that this train only ran once per day and arrived in El Chorro around 7:30 PM. This train was not listed on the board of trips, and we had to endure an anxious wait in an hour-long customer service line to find out if our train was indeed leaving that evening.
The train station in Malaga is about as big as a shopping mall in the United States and is adorned with numerous shops, including brand name clothing stores, watch shops, eateries, boutiques, even a bowling alley and casino. To our delight, about halfway through what would have been an hour-long wait we discovered a ticket machine that allowed us to purchase our tickets with no line or hassle. We spent the rest of the day walking the streets of Malaga and eating in a couple of the cafés that lined the streets filled with shops and restaurants.
When the time of our departure finally arrived at 6:49, we were dismayed to find out that the train carrying us on our final leg of the day’s marathon trip had broken down. We were assured, after a few confusing exchanges in broken English and Spanish, that the train leaving at 8:40 that evening would take us to El Chorro. I was skeptical, as the bed and breakfast owner had previously informed me that only one train left per day to El Chorro.
One McDonald’s dinner later, we were ready once again to board the train. We passed through security and got in line to board the train to Bocadilla, a destination on the same route as El Chorro but a bit further down the track. Right before boarding, I thought it would be prudent to ask the conductor if this train was indeed stopping at El Chorro as we were told. To our disbelief and dismay he told us that the train was not stopping, and we had the wrong tickets. After causing somewhat of a commotion, we were forced to sit and listen to the conductor argue in rapid Spanish with the employees who had told us that the train would be stopping at our destination. Five very long minutes later, we were saved when it was decided that the train would be stopping, and we finally were able to board stress free for the first time that day.
A short train ride later and a pick up by the proprietor of our B&B in El Chorro, the Olive Branch, we finally arrived in the heart the Andalusian Sierras amidst a gorgeous backdrop of lush green mountains rising suddenly out of the earth all around us. As I looked up at the brilliant night sky, fiercely dotted with the embers of billions of stars filling up the heavens, I knew that we had finally arrived. As I drank in the ethereal beauty of my foreign surroundings with an appreciation that only an exhausted traveler can appreciate, I knew that it was all worth it. In a few short days we will be returning our Semester at Sea home, the MV Explorer. At least we’ve had some practice for the journey ahead.