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J.C. THOMAS

My flight landed at Germany’s Frankfurt airport in the morning. The aircraft was Russian built Ilyushin IL-62, which was withdrawn within a little over a year due to safety issues. My trip was to Alicante in Spain well-known for exciting football and ferocious bullfighting. Both footballers and matadors are worshipped there like our cine stars!

The balloon on which families escaped at the Bavarian history museum.
Iberian hostesses.

A few of the passengers were employees of the same carrier occupying premier seats; they could travel worldwide along with their families free, lifelong. One of the aggrieved passengers called it ‘Sakkath’, the purification process by alms-giving.
I waited near the conveyor belt to fetch the luggage. As the delay increased, the murmur of intolerance too rose among the passengers. Gradually the movement off the belt and the murmurs were stopped. No, my baggage has not come. The supervisor near the belt just directed me to go to the facilitation counter. The realisation that I would miss the flight to Madrid in a few hours flew down like a thunderbolt.

There was a reasonably long queue in front of the barricaded counter, indirectly announcing that there are many unluckier passengers besides me. Inside the counter with vertically hoisted steel rods resembling the cash counter of a bank, were three saree clad ladies discussing with a male colleague about the curvaceous heroine (was it Deba Shree Roy or Poonam Dhillon?) in the newly released Bollywood movie.

When presented with the problem, one of the ladies did some scribbling on the tele-printer, of course, without any concern but with irritation. I was asked to report after two hours, not before. “do khande ke baad aa.” That ‘chal’ that followed was self-explanatory.

Anticipating the same old treatment, I went to the Iberian Airlines Counter. Oh! What a difference? Well-carpeted place with cushioned seats. The beautiful blue-eyed girl wearing a short uniform was all out helpful. She said in Spanish, “no te preocupes’ (don’t worry). There is a flight after six hours, shall we try in that?” The first palpitation came down a bit with those consoling words.

But the rough voice behind the glorified cash counter should confirm. Waited for two hours looking steadily at the HMT Citizen automatic gold plated watch with due corrections made as per international dateline – I think that was six hours behind. The visit shop selling coffee for 4 Deutsche Mark (Rs.160) should be postponed.

Careful not to shed the pathetic face, went near the counter again. Even though I never expected a sweet voice, I was startled by the sandpaper one “luggage still not arrived. Not moved a bit. Come the same time tomorrow”. When the loss of time and irritation escalated to a high pitch, the reply was that of Bombay underworld, “kaiko kaali peeli bath kartha hai? Nikal jaa ikkade (why unnecessary talking? Get lost from here)”.

Again back to the airline counter bearing the name of the Iberian clan famous for black smithy, clay, and pottery. Judging from my body language and hands free of luggage the blue-eyed girl said “tómalo con Calma’ (take it easy). Tomorrow you will be on the flight to Madrid with the luggage.”

Gloria added, “We do not have provisions to arrange for a transit visa, food, or hotel. If you don’t mind, you can stay in the transit lounge having limited facility.” She even pulled out a small Iberian bag containing shaving kit, toothbrush, paste, soap, and a towel.

Thought of taking a bit more freedom and asked her, “There will be a person waiting for me at Alicante airport. How can I pass the information to him?” The flight from Madrid to Alicante was 90 minutes, and from there another 90 minutes to his place by road. By all possibility, he would have left by now. That was the era without the internet and mobile phones. Gloria was quick to answer, “Alicante? Mi nativa (my native place). Don’t forget to see the Bonfire of Saint John during your next visit.” Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits on that day i.e., June 24 as the sun was turning southward again.
“Friend’s name and telephone number?”

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Again, the realisation that the number is in the box back in Bombay came in. As if guessed it, Gloria said not to worry. “We shall announce it in Madrid and Alicante.” She took the phone, “mi India amigo.” Understood that she is referring to say about a friend from India. She called one again, this time, it should be to Alicante.

“What about a coffee break?” That invitation from Gloria was an ambition fulfilled.
Gloria asked her colleagues, “15 minutos de descanso por favour” (15 minutes break please). We went to the nearby Trinken (drinking spot in German). While she opted for one beer and a huge hamburger, I took a cappuccino and a hotdog. The famous 16-day long beer-drinking festival Octofest had just concluded. Seventy lakh litres beer are the conservative estimate of consumption. Now it is the time of Halloween (November 2), the one day in a year granted by the Pope for unrestricted movement for the spirits, ghosts, and evil.

The Bonfire of Saint John.

Just for formality, I offered to foot the bill. “no, eres mi invitado.” She has an account there. I did not have a Deutsche mark but the only Peseta of Spain (The Euro currency came into existence in 1999 January 1).
The transit lounge meant for upper-class passengers was of five star standards. A soft, comfortable chair, sofa, leg massaging mechanism, light music, paper, magazines, water and snacks.

There was a 16 MM movie going on in one corner. It was about eight members of two families who escaped from East Germany to West Germany by crossing the Berlin wall on a hot air balloon. The youngest in that group was just two years old.

I was present near the jail before time. I was feeling lucky enough as the luggage has arrived. The once rectangular shaped box is now attained a new avatar — elongated shape with the hinges about the give way and adorned with Picasso styled scratches all over. The table resembled the inflicted face of a matador.

I still wanted to thank those inside the counter. But what I got was in the language of Jellikkettu and Mattupongal from a dark girl who was sitting cross-legged and showing the metti (foot finger rings). “Kidaichahillaya? Go gum without talking.” Gum is a universal language to shut mouth. Behind her hung the picture of Mahatma Gandhi with his famous quote, “A customer is the most important visitor to your premises…”
On the floor below the board ‘Do not spit’’ thambakoo stains (tobacco), tele printer rolls. sandwich remains… strewn all over.
At the Iberian counter, Gloria handed over the renewed ticket with that mischievous smile again. (My Alicante friend had arranged the ticket at the counter.) Normally, that would call for a series of documentations — Aadhaar, notary, attestation, gazetted and verification.

It was nearing noon. Gloria said apologetically, “My duty is over. Now it is the siesta time. For the Spaniards, siesta, the mid-day nap is a routine. This word is from Latin sexta (hōra) and the sixth (hour). Their day starts at 6 am and noon is the 6th hour. The Bible also follows this system. If you dare to wake anyone from siesta, a ruckus is assured.

As the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 flight was approaching Madrid, I could see greenery in the mountain and valley region. The airline brochure mentioned this region like Brigitte Bardot, the French actress whose name became synonymous with curves. (The Boeing Company took over McDonnell Douglas and modified the emblem slightly.)
I could see the Manzanares River, which passes through Madrid, and thick growth of trees all around. After Tokyo, Madrid is having a maximum number of trees; they are planning to increase this number to 10 lakhs. I could also see the Palacio de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid) spread over 13,500 square meters and has 3,414 rooms. No wonder the head office of WTO (World Tourist Organisation) is in Madrid. COP25, UN Climatic Change conference took place in Madrid by end of 2019

The Iberian ground staff was waiting for me. I came to know that besides announcing both at Madrid and Alicante airports, my visit was also broadcasted in the citizen band car radio. After five years, almost a repetition of the last episode happened. This time I travelled by German national carrier Lufthansa. Lufthansa’s name came from Luft (rise) and Hans (a group of businesspeople. They had a joint venture in India too called Modi-Luft, which just had a life of three years (1993 to 1996.) Then Spice jet was started on that license.

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The luggage came in time. The handle of the box was loose even in Bombay. The facilitation manager came near me, smiling. “Sorry, your luggage is damaged. The handle is shaky, and there are a lot of scratches. We should replace them.” Even though I tried not to accept the offer, he was adamant. “It is our mistake, you should accept it, if not ‘meine Arbeit verlieren’ (I will lose my job).” He gave me a slip and directed to the luggage shop in the shopping area.

In the shop, I asked for the prices of each suitcase. The owner smiled and said, “Mach dir keine Sorgen (don’t worry). The mistake is ours. You can choose any briefcase.” So picked the best Louis Vuitton suitcase fitted with wheels and made out of oxen hide. When he knew that I am from Kerala, he was quick to respond, “My great-great-grandfather was there. Hermann Gundert. He presented me with a tie clip.

In the flight to Alicante, one woman was sitting in my seat engrossed in a game of Tauromachia, a set of chess like a game of bullfighting. I told her in a raised voice, “That is my seat.” She slowly raised her head and apologised, “Perdón lo siento (sorry, pardon). That face with blue eyes was familiar. Then I noticed the name tag on her handbag: Gloria Estrada, Alcaldesa honorable (honourable mayor), Alicante. The newly elected mayor wore a business suit shedding her short Iberian uniform, but that mischievous smile was still in place.
“Cómo estás (How are you?). I hope you had no problem this time?”

The Palace in Alicante with Benanti mountain in the background.

The Mayor invited me warmly. “Welcome to the bullfighting tomorrow in Alicante. Mayor’s “invitada gets a special seat.”
“No gracias! Thanks.” What I wanted to say was different. No, not keen to see those bulls that are falling dead with more than six spear wounds, partially blinded by chili powder and smeared with alkali to prevent from falling. They have broken sound tubes to avoid them from making sounds, and have wet paper hammered into the ears so that they can’t hear.
Gloria said. “Those toros (bulls) are luckier than us, they are fed only beer.”
I thought of blowing my trumpet a bit too. “We also have bullfighting in our land. Those Kankayam bulls in Tamil Nadu are fed with tobacco and arrack. There will be challi sack (Change) tied to their sharp horns. Those who can make those horns touch the ground and can fetch that sack are assured to hold the hands of the princess.”
“Really? Then the team and I from Alicante will be there for the next Jallikkettu,” Gloria threatened.
How come the face of the Matador wearing iron war attire who can make the Toros falling by throwing the Bandilla (spear), the Tamil hero who make the horns of the bulls touch the ground and the film-loving girl in the prison-like facilitation counter have the same expression of cruelty, lack of concern and indifference? How come new iron curtains and shields come up?

Generally, I found the Spaniards as fun loving and lazy, but then how come they conquered over 40 big nations all over the globe? We can find people sunbathing near the sandy beaches. This place was named Lucentum (the “place of light”) by the ancient Romans who settled here. There are many historical monuments and museums here.
In a commanding position above the town, the Castillo de Santa Bárbara seems to sprout from a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. The hilltop location on Mount Benacantil is a testament to the castle’s military purpose and has been a strategic asset as far back as the Carthaginian era. The original ninth-century Islamic Alcazar was captured from the Moors by the Christian Prince Alfonso of Castile. The victorious battle was on the feast day of Santa Barbara, explaining the castle’s name. During the reign of Philip II, the castle was renovated in Renaissance style.

Then there is the Museo Arqueológico de Alicante (MARQ), an archaeological museum that takes visitors on a journey through 100,000 years of history. The collection covers prehistory; the classical period of antiquity with Greek, Roman, and Iberian artefacts; and the middle Ages. Themed galleries include those dedicated to Iberian culture, Roman civilization, and the medieval period. Highlights of the collection include the assortment of ancient coins, a figure of the goddess Tanit, and the Iberian ceramics.

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The Explanada de España, also known as the Paseo de la Explanada or the Promenade Explanada, is a pedestrian street that runs parallel to the marina, starting in the Old Town. Lined with palm trees, the Explanada is paved with over six-and-a-half-million marble tiles, which produce a stunning mosaic wave pattern. This is the ideal place for a stroll any time of day, and it’s particularly refreshing in the summer evenings with the cool Mediterranean breeze that brushes in from the harbour.

In the historic Santa Cruz quarter, the Basilica de Santa María is the oldest church in Alicante. The church was built by the Catholic monarchs in the 13th century on the site of a former mosque. Originally Gothic in style, the church was remodelled in the 18th century with a Baroque facade and interior. On the main front of the exterior, the sculpture by Juan Bautista Borja stands out as a stunning specimen of detailed stone carving.

The Playa del Postiguet beach offers the serenity of gentle waves and deep turquoise waters.

In the centre of Alicante at the foot of the Castillo de Santa Barbara is the Playa del Postiguet beach that offers the serenity of gentle waves and deep turquoise waters. It is popular for its fine golden sand and excellent facilities, including public toilets, showers, and water sports rentals, as well as sun parasols and lounge chairs for rent. The calm waters are ideal for swimming, and all potential safety hazards are signposted on a daily basis. Families will appreciate the children’s play area designed for little kids.

In the heart of the city, near the town hall, is the 17th-century church of San Nicolás de Bari (also known as the Concatedral or Co-Cathedral). Built between 1613 and 1662, the church was constructed on the site of a former mosque. It was dedicated to the town’s patron saint, and the Catholic Church designated it as a cathedral in 1959.

Just behind the park of the Explanada de Espana and near the Plaza Puerta del Mar, the town hall of Alicante makes a striking impression. This grand Baroque building has a beautiful Churrigueresque facade and two imposing towers, which soar to 35 meters. On the staircase leading up to the building is an instrument used in Spain as a reference point to measure the height above sea level. The building is open to the public, and visitors should be sure to see the Salón Azul (Blue Room), which is particularly dazzling. The building also displays some interesting Dalí art works.

Close to Alicante’s Old Town, the Plaza de Gabriel Miró offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Visitors can relax on the terrace to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere or take an unhurried stroll through the beautiful grounds.

Several small coves just outside Alicante between San Juan and Albufereta are popular among scuba divers. The Cala Cantalars are small rocky coves found in a quiet residential area two kilometres from the Alicante city center. The Cala dels Jueus coves are in Cabo de las Huertas; some are rocky and others are sandy coves. Both of these areas have calm waters and are great for scuba diving.