Saturday, September 28, 2013

Montserrat, or how to feel totally insignificant and supremely divine in one day

Dia tres.

At this point in our trip, I pretty much accepted the fact that I had no bearings whatsoever in the city. I generally have a pretty good rule about finding my way around any given place: go against my directional instincts. Invariably, when I exit a subway station, I am pulled toward a certain direction and invariably, it is the complete opposite direction of where I need to go. Over the years I have harnessed this power so by going in the opposite direction, I get there. However, considering that I was unable to pay attention to any direction, whether instinctual or the opposite in Barcelona, I just followed Rashish, a human compass. And really I was having such a wonderful time that while I was lost most of the time, I was not directionless.

This was the case as we made our way to the train station to hop on a train to Montserrat. A quick word about the railways in the three major foreign cities I've used them: they make no sense. As was the case in Paris finding the ticket booth, purchasing the correct tickets and then figuring out the schedule for a train that went from the city center to an outlying area was intensely confusing. In addition, harried, because despite leaving relatively on time, we arrived to the station late. Also, the first trip injury happened on the way when Lorraine banged her hand really hard into one of the train turnstiles, rendering it bruised and swollen. (PSA: don't google images of swollen hands. Save yourself.)

Thankfully the train was running a few minutes late. Or maybe it wasn't, I don't know because the schedule was not clear, there was no "we are running late announcement" and since we may have been drinking the night before, there was listlessness to our not finding out. Never mind that, we made it.

The train ride was about 40 minutes or so which, considering how big and boisterous the city of Barcelona is and conversely how enormous and peaceful Montserrat is, is pretty damn remarkable.
Nancy was really the one who planned this sojourn and I knew nothing about the place before seeing it but I am so glad I went along on this trip. A cable car ride is required to get to even the base of the hiking trails on any point of the mountain and then there are two additional funiculars to get to even higher levels not accessible on foot. In fact, Montserrat has so many peaks that it remains unclear to me if we ever got to the very top. I don't think so since I remember at what we all decided was as far as we would go and looking up to something even higher. I'm not going to lie, I was humbled, awed, afraid, tired, elated, pacific and insignificant all at the same time during various parts of this journey up the (halfway/mostly?) mountain. For some perspective, here is a shot I got of the cable car that takes you from the train station to the base of the hiking trails:

The eensy yellow thing creeps up at quite a clip.

So that experience was humbling in itself. I think along the way we were saying hypothetical last words should the cable snap. "I regret nothing." "Tell my mom I love her." "Tell my mom she's totes deese." You get the picture.

Though this is not my picture, it may as well be since I'm pretty sure we all looked like that when we got off the cable car:

A couple of us peered over the side and saw the tiniest grey cat just hanging out at the bottom of the mountain. We were all "Awww, how cute." He rewarded our adulation by vomiting in the most dramatic fashion. I kind of want a tshirt that says "I climbed Montserrat and saw a cat puke." Poor mountain kitty.

When we got to the top we were all pretty hungry, despite the fact that some of us dined on crappy vendy snacks, one of which came with a temporary tattoo of a lady bug that Jason rocked on his neck. (I still giggle at the thought that passerby and fellow tourists thought he had an actual lady bug neck tattoo.) There is a tiny town on that level of the mountain with, apparently, only one big restaurant. It was hot and packed full of people and I just picked the easiest thing I could find and we all sat down to eat. I probably would have gotten something with more protein in it had I realized the amount of uphill walking we were about to do but I think I was distracted by  having survived the cable car ride, the manic pace of the cafeteria style restaurant and the fact that no one cleans up after themselves in Spain. By that I mean, it is customary to just leave your plates where they are instead of taking them to the trash. That felt wrong to me each and every time. As wrong as just sitting at an open table instead of waiting for a host or not tipping, anyone. Not even taxis!

Anyway, we headed up.

The "hiking trail" was really made up of a mixture of dirt road and stones that had been laid by, presumably the monks who inhabit the Benedictine monastery that is located on Montserrat. Along various pathways there are also altars, statues, crucifixes, nooks built into the mountain sides where apparently reclusive monks used to live. Jason said he imagined that a lot of the stone work was part of an exercise in mediation and I thought about what it must be like to dedicate your life, your entire life to one long act of meditation. It was so isolated up there, even with all the tourists walking around and almost completely silent. It is difficult for me to imagine being able to focus on a task like prayer or laying stones or carving sculptures with this at your back

And yet at the same time, what better place to contemplate than with the constant reminder of one's firm place, glued to a little painted marble spinning senseless through an endless black sky. What better place to be reminded that the world is both bigger than anything we are and at the same time is completely contained within us. Them monks, they got it right. I saw a few people headed up the mountain with their yoga mats. Someday I would like to do yoga on top of a mountain.

At one point, I stopped to sit down on a landing and almost didn't complete the trail we were on. I was tired and lazy but eventually I  made my way up to this little chapel at the end of the trail. The altar was built into the mountain and looked like this:

And as you walked through to the other side of the building this was the view, a view that I'm pretty sure is one that your consciousness wakes up to right after you cross from this life into the next.

After going up to that chapel, I mistakenly thought it was the top. Turns out we were no where near the top. There were two funicular rides to different sides of the mountain, each with their own peaks and branching off trails. So yeah, no where near the top. We had purchased tickets on both funiculars so we went up the 2nd one.

Again, I was astounded that every top of everything seemed the top of it all only to turn around and see more up above. When we got to our highest point I remember turning around and seeing this:

I don't know if you can tell but there are people dotting the top ridge there. So it was possible to ascend even further. Also, I'm not sure if you can tell this either but we are little specs in a vast universe. Just saying.

By this point we were tired and hungry and ready to descend in the funicular inside of which was a group of other sweaty, tired tourists filming the descent through their iPads which, just don't do that. Just look with your unfiltered eyes at the majesty of the world and think about it. Stop recording everything.

We had to wait a bit for the train back to Barcelona and during the wait, I was tasked with making reservations for a nice paella dinner that night. I thought I accomplished this via the website but as I would later find out, I failed. They ask me to do ONE thing... that all ended up ok though. To wit:

We made it back to Barcelona and our respective apartments to change and get ready for dinner. We took the train to the neighborhood right near the water. It started to rain just as we got out onto the street but the rain in Barcelona at night was actually just romantic. There were tons of people walking around everywhere, not at all bothered by the rain. It didn't last very long anyway and no one really seemed to notice.

We got to the restaurant to be told that they never received our reservation but the wait would only be about 30  minutes. They didn't have a bar, which is weird but we went next door for some wine. I noticed the bartender because he, like nearly every native Spanish man I came across, was a fox. After he served our drinks he casually stepped from behind the bar and sat at the piano and proceeded to play a medley of jazzy tunes like it was his job. Maybe it was his job, I don't know but naturally this makes me think that every man in Spain is a sexy musician moonlighting as a bartender. Or vice versa. Or something.

Anyway, we went back next door and got seated near the kitchen, which was separated from the dining hall by only half a wall. You could watch the gigantic chefs' hats scurry to and fro. I drank a lot of wine so I remember the following:

I ate black rice with cuttlefish and it was fucking delicious.
I laughed a lot because I was with a group of naturally funny people, lubricated with wine.
We finished dinner at like, 1am because, you know, Barcelona.
We took a cab home and on the radio was the band Fun. which, thanks to some repeated and hilarious impersonations of songs about nephew's eyes, I now hate (whereas before, I merely disliked). And the cab ride was worth that long joke.

Writing about it now, almost two weeks later, I'm impressed with the balance of the day. By that I mean, it is normally easy for me to fall into existential panic on an everyday basis, much less when I'm suspended hundreds of feet in the air in a small yellow box, tethered to a single cable or seeing from a height and a distance how very small everything truly is and maybe there was a little of that going on. But to come back to a more grounded latitude and still finding beauty in a rainy night, or a piano playing bartender, savoring food and wine and being in the moment, all in spite of those old aimless feelings...well if that's the purpose and the meaning of all of us, then that's just fine, isn't it?

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